This blogpost was written on May 27th 2018.
This week the Brexit negotiations resumed in Brussels with the UK presenting a series of papers, or rather PowerPoints, on issues ranging from future economic relationships between the two sides, through security cooperation to data protection and data flows.
On data protection, an issue with which we are very familiar, the UK’s pitch can best be summed up as:
Can we all pretend, and act, as if the UK has not left the EU?
Can we have exactly the same arrangement on data flows as we have now?
After Brexit, we won’t really be a third country, you know, not really, so can our data protection person still turn up at meetings of the European Data Protection Board?
But, of course, we will be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court and so we will need our own procedures to resolve disputes.
The only surprise is that the presentation did not end with that much used advert punchline: “…because we’re worth it”.
Likewise, the UK is insisting that it can continue to be a full and active participant in the Galileo satellite program, whose rules specifically state that it is limited to EU members for security reasons. The UK is threatening to build its own system if it is excluded. This threat, from a country that cannot afford to buy jets for its latest aircraft carriers, is being taken none too seriously.
In homage to the ardent Brexiter, Jacob-Rees Mogg, let us suggest that any system the UK builds should be christened Moggileo. Why, because, firstly, Moggileo is a fantasy and, even if it were ever built, it would just spin uselessly in space emitting signals sending you, and an entire country, in the completely wrong direction.
When you read all the submissions the UK made this week you are left with the impression that what the UK really want is a bespoke union between the UK and the EU. Let’s call it the British + European Union (BEU), which replicates to the UK’s benefit all the advantages of EU membership, but with none of the obligations.
No free movement of people, no European Court, no payments into the EU budget. Everything stays the same except where the UK wants them to change.
Will the EU agree with this? To borrow from a paper delivered this week by Sir Ivan Rodgers, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, “not in a month of Sundays”. As an unnamed EU official quoted in the Guardian put it:
“To paraphrase The Leopard by Tommaso di Lampedusa, I have the impression that the UK thinks everything has to change on the EU’s side so that everything can stay the same for the UK.”
“I am concerned that if the current debate continues, in three months’ time it will be the EU that will be made responsible for the Brexit decision. We need the UK to accept the consequences of its own decisions.
Which brings us to the question: Why is the UK handling the Brexit process so badly, why does it seem so unprepared?
The answer, we believe, lies in the title to this BEERG Brexit Briefing: Crashers, Cavers and Light Remainers.
“Light Remainers” refers to the position that a majority of the British political class, and commentariat, held prior to the EU referendum in 2016.
Check out this brilliant take on all of this by Chris Grey here. It can best be summarised as the UK “needing” to be a member of the EU for economic reasons but not sharing in the enthusiasm of the other key members for “ever closer union”.
Sir Ivan Rodgers put the UK position well:
I would characterise the Cameron renegotiation as the last of multiple attempts, dating back at least 25 years, to carve out and entrench a British exceptionalism within the EU.
We already had – as I got endlessly reminded by EU colleagues – an entirely unique status within the EU. A unique opt-out from monetary union, an opt-out from Schengen, an ability largely to pick and choose which areas of judicial integration to join and which not, and so on.
Cameron sought further to entrench that exceptional status. He wanted a Europe of separate tiers, not multiple speeds. We were not on a slow train to the same destination to which others might be heading by Express. We were heading for – or at – a different final destination, and a flexible, effective EU should, in his view, have been able to accommodate radically different destinations with only certain core elements, legal rulebooks and mechanisms in common.
Cameron wanted permanently to insulate the UK from being sucked into monetary, fiscal and political integration which it did not want, whilst benefitting from greater cross-border integration in goods and services markets to create a vastly larger “home” market, and the ability to break down the behind the border barriers to trade that the Single Market was created to deliver – largely by Lord Cockfield, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative appointee to the European Commission, and probably the biggest producer of supranational legislation in human history.
Cameron thought he would win the 2016 referendum and the UK would remain in the EU on the new terms he had negotiated, which were marginally different than the terms in force before he began his negotiation.
Therefore, why plan for something that not only you didn’t think was going to happen but something you didn’t want to happen. Had Cameron seriously begun planning to leave it would have signalled that he thought leaving was a realistic option. This he didn’t want to do.
Napoleon once said: “I would rather have a general who was lucky than one who was good”. Whether or not Cameron was good is for others to decide, but he was definitely unlucky with his referendum timing.
In the run up to the day of the vote in 2016 TV screens were filled with images of African and Middle Eastern refugees landing or being washed up on the coasts of Italy or Greece. Brexiters took advantage, suggesting that millions were on their way to the UK, with 80 million Turks not far behind, just as soon the Turkey was admitted to the EU. Given the 52/48 closeness of the vote, those images of distraught refugees may well have swung the vote.
So, expecting to win, the “Light Remainers”, the majority of the political class, did no planning as to how best to actually leave the EU. But what about the Leavers, the ardent Brexiters? Some of them, such as Ian Duncan Smith, had been stridently anti-EU for much of their political lives, stretching back to the days of the Maastricht Treaty, some twenty years ago. Surely, they would know what leaving the EU would mean in practice and would have plans in place accordingly?
As has become clear since the referendum result, many of those most fervently in favour of leaving, had no idea as to what the EU was, how it worked, how deeply integrated the UK economy was with the wider European economy and how difficult leaving would be.
Recall how David Davis, now the Brexit Secretary, wrote before the referendum that in the event of Leave winning the Prime Minister should ignore Brussels and be on the next flight to Berlin to negotiate with Germany, whose car makers would force the German government to cut a sweet deal with the UK.
Davis was apparently ignorant of the fact at the time he wrote that the EU negotiates trade deals as a bloc on behalf of its members states with third countries which is what the UK would become after Brexit. EU member states don’t do their own trade deals because they know there is leverage in numbers. Davis knows this now.
Remember how Peter Lilley, recently made a member of the House of Lords, suggested that negotiating a trade deal with Brussels would take all of ten minutes. Similarly, Liam Fox, now Trade Secretary, who told voters that discussions with Brussels on a trade deal would be the “easiest in history”.
It seems to us that the reason that the Leavers had done no detailed preparation is because they fell into one of two camps: Crashers or Cavers.
Gossip in Brussels has it that Michael Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, once asked one of the UK’s leading Brexiteers, Nigel Farage, the UKIP MEP, how he saw the relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit. “There won’t be an EU after Brexit”, was Farage’s reply.
Farage is a “crasher”, one of those who believed that as soon as the UK voted to leave the EU it would be quickly followed by an alphabet soup of exits: Frexit (France); Nexit (The Netherlands); Plexit (Poland); and, of course, Irexit (Ireland), the last rushing to rejoin the “motherland” in the great rebirth of the Anglosphere, Aka: the British Empire 2:0.
(Note: Any country that was an involuntary member of the British Empire 1:0 – and there weren’t any voluntary members – probably wouldn’t be in any great hurry to rejoin.)
Farage and his ilk imagined that Brexit would be the event that caused the EU to crash and burn. Not only did the EU not implode; but polls over the past year or so suggest the support for the EU has grown, no doubt fuelled, in part, by the fact that the EU economy is returning to health. More importantly, as the Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, recent put it, Brexit has brought home to most Europeans that, faults and all, the EU is the best we have got.
But if you believe that an organisation you are campaigning to leave is going to disintegrate after you have left not much point in planning for your future relationship with it. It was always that way with those who believe that the end of the world is Nigh(el).
However loudly the “crashers” might shout they were always a minority voice within the Brexit movement.
The much bigger faction, and now occupying many government ministries, are the “cavers”, those who believe then, and still do now, that as soon as the UK voted to leave, the EU would be so traumatised that it would immediately cave to all the UK demands. Cake and eat it? The UK could have the bakery.
Peter Lilly’s “ten minutes to do a trade deal” is symptomatic of this thinking as was David Davis’s belief that German car manufacturers, Italian prosecco producers, French cheese makers, the Spanish tourist industry and, probably, Dutch clog cobblers, would be pressurising their governments to do a deal with the UK on UK terms.
As the now Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, put it in April, 2016:
“The day after we vote to leave WE HOLD ALL THE CARDS and we can choose the path we want.”
In March 2016, Boris Johnson commented:
“The cost of getting out would be virtually nil”.
For “cavers” post-Brexit planning was simple. We’ll leave the EU completely but then opt-back in to all the bits we like, so we can have the benefits but none of the obligations.
What could be easier? As Davis said in October 2016: “There will be no downside to Brexit.”
By now, two years down the road from the referendum vote, cavers believed that terms would have been agreed with the EU covering the UK’s departure. These terms would see the UK continue to trade with the EU as if it were still in the customs union and single market, but with none of the obligations that such membership brings. The UK would also continue to participate fully in all EU programs, such a Galileo and the European Arrest Warrant, but without having to be bothered by pesky rulings from the European Court.
And trade deals with the rest of the world would be dropping like ripe cherries from the trees on warm summer evenings. No need for cherry-picking in their world.
The problem for the caver strategy is that the EU didn’t cave. In fact, from the moment of the UK vote the EU set out clearly the terms under which it would deal with the UK leaving. Not so much a negotiation, more a toxic containment process. You negotiate when you can see some mutual benefit from concluding a deal. What identifiable benefit does Brexit bring to anyone? Whatever benefits ardent Brexiters believe will accrue at some unspecified point in the future for the UK, the EU sees nothing but downsides and has approached matters accordingly.
But the UK government continues to behave as if it believes that at a minute to midnight on March 29th, 2019, the EU will give the UK the deal it wants. After all, the EU always does such minute-to-midnight deals.
Yes, it does… but only with its own members, or with countries that want to get closer to the EU. Not with countries that are leaving because they want to get further away, not closer.
There will be no going away presents on offer.
- The “Light Remainers” did no planning because they never thought the UK would be leaving.
- The “Crashers” did no planning because they hoped and believed that the EU would no longer exist.
- The “Cavers” did no planning because they “knew” the EU would come offering cake on a plate. Now, they are left looking for crumbs.
A Footnote: The clear victory for the governments proposals in Ireland’s recent referendum, should put an end to any more suggestions from Brexiteers that the Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar somehow does not speak for the “real” Ireland on Brexit. He does.