Backstop, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Irish border, Northern Ireland

If UK plans to threaten on #Brexit, it should be a credible threat

This blogpost was written on Thursday evening July 18th, 2019


Nye Bevan, the British Labour politician credited with creating the National Health Service (NHS), once said: “You don’t have to gaze into a crystal ball when you can read an open book”.

According to a report published by BuzzFeed News, Boris Johnson, who in all likelihood will be declared the new leader of the Tory Party next week, opening the door to him becoming Prime Minister, is quoted as saying at a private dinner in June 2018:

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit… I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness…. He’d go in bloody hard … There would be all sorts of breakdowns, there would be all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

It seems to me that Johnson thinks he can do a “Trump” with the Brexit negotiations. Go in, smash everything up, and see what happens. The EU will take fright at the chaos, throw Ireland under a bus and give Johnson what he wants.

Chris Grey calls it the “Nixon as madman” theory. Let’s describe it as the Trumpian/Nixon approach, a madman out of control. “Quick, give him what he wants before he wrecks the place”.

Steve Barclay, the current Brexit Secretary, underscored that this could well be the Johnson approach when he reportedly told EU Brexit negotiator, Michael Barnier, last week, no less than five times, that the Withdrawal Agreement was dead. Johnson doubled down on this on Monday when he told a Tory Party meeting that he wanted the backstop, a core element of the Withdrawal Agreement, gone completely.

Putting together all the bits and pieces of what he has been saying it seems that Johnson’s “plan” is to completely tear up the Withdrawal Agreement and reset the Brexit process to zero. He will then offer a deal on citizens’ rights. He will also offer to settle the UK’s financial obligations, but only on the condition that this payment is explicitly linked to trade talks. He will demand that the backstop be dropped and will say that the border issue can be settled in future trade talks.

Johnson may propose an extended transition to allow these trade talks to take place, with all existing arrangements between the EU and the UK held at a “standstill” until the talks are completed. Such a deal would allow him to take the UK out of the EU by October 31st next (Brexit delivered) while scrapping the backstop, “buying” a trade deal with monies already owed and avoiding damaging both the UK and EU economies.

If the EU refuses this “reasonable deal”, he will try to take the UK out of the EU by October 31st with no deal. Were this to happen then, according to a report in the Independent the Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay believes that the EU will give in “very quickly” and start talks on a trade deal because of the UK’s “size and importance…” The bloc’s unity will crumble under pressure from its voters and businesses once the “impact of no deal” is felt.

Of course, all of this is dependent on parliament allowing Johnson to do this. A very big assumption for anyone to make. But let’s leave that to one side and just examine where Johnson’s approach leads.

Many Brexiteers are convinced that the “Trumpian/Nixon” approach to negotiations will work because they believe that the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. Anyone familiar with the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU, stretching back to the days of Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950s, knows that UK politicians have always believed that “Europe” could not move ahead without the UK. Time and again they have been proved wrong.

For good measure, Brexiteers also plan to pile the pressure on the Irish. After all, the “Southern Irish” should know their place and what the people of Northern Ireland want is of no relevance. The Northern Irish, like the Scots, will do what is in the best interests of Brexit England.

Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society popped up on a daytime BBC TV politics program last week to offer the following advice:

“You don’t go to Brussels but you go instead to Dublin. You literally do a deal with the Irish, whether you bribe them or threaten them, one way or the other, to get them into the position where they’re the ones to drop the opposition to the backstop…”

Mendoza is not the only one to suggest threatening Ireland. Remember, Priti Patel, who may return to cabinet in a Johnson government, once proposed cutting off Ireland’s food supplies and starving the Irish into submission. Not a credible threat to a food exporting nation.

One of the things you learn in Negotiations 101 is that if you are planning to either bribe or threaten the other party best not to alert them beforehand. Not only is forewarned forearmed, but it also tells them that you are not actually very good at this stuff. If I know that you are planning to reach a “monetary accommodation” (AKA, bribe) with me, and I am open to such an “accommodation”, then the price goes up. And up. And it better be cash, euros preferably. No sterling. No postdated cheques.

If you plan to threaten the other party, then it better be a very credible threat. One that you can actually deliver. One that makes the other party genuinely frightened. You also better be careful that they guy you threaten can’t reach for a bigger counter threat.

Now, I’m not actually sure what the British could threaten us Irish with. That they’ll wreck our economy? How? Just around 10% of Ireland’s exports go to the UK (here) and that is a continually dwindling number. Irish dependency on the UK is just not what it used to be. It is now happily exporting Trevelyan’s corn with no famine in sight.

If the UK is going to threaten Ireland, it is as well to remember this: Ireland is a continuing member of the EU. On the inside, with a seat at the decision-making table. With that seat comes a veto on certain issues. Such as trade deals of the type that the UK wants to negotiate with the EU when it has left. A potential veto on a trade deal seems to me to be pretty serious leverage at any time. Negotiators who threaten should always remember that there is a tomorrow as well as a today and that what goes around comes around.

It is also worth checking if the person whom you intend to threaten has friends, especially big friends, friends who are bigger than you, a lot bigger. Especially, if you are also planning to cut a deal with these friends sometime down the road. Some friends are real friends and don’t forget things. Like friends of Ireland in the US Congress who will have a very important say on any future UK-US trade deal. Probably best not to make enemies of such people. It never works out well if you do.

Let me pull it all together.

If some people in the UK think they can credibly threaten Ireland over the Withdrawal Agreement then they might be wise to think again. Call it the counter threat of the double veto, one in Europe and one in the US.  The Irish learnt from the British. Accumulate power, know how to use it and never be afraid to use it. Nothing personal, just business.

Apart from the inanity of threatening Ireland, the problem for Johnson with the Trumpian/Nixon approach is that the UK is playing with an empty deck. As Simon Jenkins recently commented in the Guardian:

Even as a stubborn Eurosceptic, I can see no conceivable benefit in Britain leaving Europe’s economic area on 31 October, least of all without any sort of customs deal. For a nation to initiate controls on border movement and trade with its adjacent continent is mindless self-harm, in this case driven by populist machismo. Yet that is what both Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have agreed to countenance after this week’s leadership debate.

I see it this way: You, as a family, have sold your house and have set a departure date. When you sold, you had no idea where you were going to live in the future. All of the family had different ideas. Some wanted to stay close to where you are. Others wanted to move to the US. One or two thought that going further afield would be even better. All these possibilities got conflated into one another as one great big alternative to where you now are. It all looked so much better.

Choices did not have to be made. Moving would be easy. It could be done in an afternoon.

Those in favour of staying close to where you were won over. Although moving to the US or even further afield might be doable, they would only be doable in the longer-term and might come with much bigger price tags than originally thought. However, what can be bought near where you are is not all you thought it would be either. Some of the family simply can’t accept the terms of the deal on offer.

But you can’t stay at your current address. A few more months, maybe. But’s that’s it. After that, if you don’t do a deal, you are homeless.

Some of the family seem to think that if you threaten the seller with your own homelessness they will blink and offer you new and better terms. If all comes to all, you can demand that you be allowed to pitch a tent in their garden. They might say no, but that would just be because they wanted to punish you. But no deal is better than a bad deal, after all, is it not?

More likely than not, the seller will politely point out that you were the one who sold up with no idea where you were going and if you end up on the street then that your choice. The deal on offer is the best there is. And, no, sleeping in the garden is not an option.

Now, of course, you can survive on the street. But it won’t be pleasant and the fight between family members is going to get even more vicious than it already is. Who can say where it will all end up?

This, more or less, is where we are with Brexit. The UK voted to leave the EU with no clear idea where it wanted to go. As Del Boy in only Fools and Horses might have said, Brexiteers thought that the whole world was their lobster. It turned out it wasn’t. Instead, Brexiteers have become gripped by a no-deal virus.

As we enter the closing stages of the Tory leadership election the no-deal virus is out of control. Some people, previous thought immune, have succumbed, bitten by the disease-carrying bug, “cabinetus-jobus”.

The EU is not going to take fright. It knows where its long-term interests lie and breaking its own red lines to satisfy Johnson would damage its credibility with all future negotiating partners. Ireland is not going to do a “one-on-one” deal with the UK either. It knows there is strength and solidarity in numbers.

In the real world, the “Trumpian/Nixon” strategy only works if you are the big guy. Trump can do what he does, not because he is the brightest candle in the chandelier, but because the US is still the world’s leading power. As it also was in Nixon’s day. The historian, David Cannadine, in his Victorious Century, The United Kingdom 1800 – 1906, writing about the final defeat of Napoleon comments:

As so often in protracted and geographically extended wars between great powers, it was not just a matter of tactics and strategy and generalship, important though there were and are, but of the relative distribution of resources between the combatants.

As in war, so also in international relations, size matters.

The UK is important but, at the end of the day, it is just not as important as it thinks it is. It is what it is: a medium sized European country. Unfortunately, a large part of its ruling elite has just never been able to accept that. It offends their sense of who they are. Belief in exceptionalism dies slowly.

4 thoughts on “If UK plans to threaten on #Brexit, it should be a credible threat

  1. I fear, though, that the UK too may have a big brother. A “trade” “deal” with the USA, however damaging to UK economic interests, will provide Brexiteers with the satisfaction of being ruled by WASPS rather than nasty foreigners, even if it makes the UK into a sort of Puerto Rico East. But it will enable Mr Johnson to call upon Mr Trump to unleash his tariffs (and anything else he can think of) to force the EU to make concessions to the UK.



    1. Two can play at that game ,the US cant bully the Eu as they would get a double dose back and it would hurt them as much as the EU. The U.K. would not be that important to get into a trade war for .


  2. As you point out near the end of this article, the UK is not in the Trump position. Their situation is more analogous to Mexico or Canada, so threats of ‘going in hard’ are merely self-harming and not credible as leverage in relation to the straits it finds itself in…


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