Article 50, Backstop, Boris Johnson, Brexit, British Government, Customs Union, Michel Barnier, Negotiating, Single Market

The #Brexit Syndrome Delusion

This blogpost was wrtitten on Friday Sept 27th.


Wikipedia defines Stockholm Syndrome as

“a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity. These alliances result from a bond formed between captor and captives during intimate time together, but they are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims.”

However strongly the bond is felt, to the outside observer it is irrational, explainable only by the unreal circumstances created during the time of captivity.

A large part of the UK political class and the wider population now seem to be suffering from “Brexit Syndrome”. This is probably best defined as:

an irrational and emotional commitment to a political project which all objective evidence shows to be deeply damaging to the long-term national interest.

Brexit Syndrome causes many friends of the UK from across the world to shake their heads in disbelief that a previously pragmatic country could become so deluded.

The false argument that Brexit is about recovering lost sovereignty, which the UK government’s own White Paper on Brexit admits was never actually lost, is a nonsense. Ask a Brexiteer and they will struggle to name one EU law or one decisions of the European Court which was deeply damaging to the UK. Yes, the wilder Brexiteers will name the Working Time Directive, for example, but I doubt if most British people think that a law which gives working people a minimum of four weeks holidays, a limit on working hours and the right to rest breaks during the working day is a thing of European evil.

Brexit syndrome gets us to a place where a decision by the House of Commons, the fulcrum of UK democracy, to block a no-deal Brexit is branded by the prime minister as a “surrender bill”. Surrender to whom? To the European Union it would appear.

The word surrender evokes images of war. Now, I am not aware that the UK has declared war on the EU. Much less that the EU has declared war on the UK. I don’t ever remember EU tanks rolling through the Eurotunnel, sweeping across Kent to occupy central London and points north.

I do remember the UK voluntarily joining the EU and engaging robustly in EU decision making over the past forty years. I also remember that one of the EU’s signature achievements, the single market, was largely of British design.

Not only did the EU never invade the UK, still less declare war on it, the EU has made no attempt whatsoever to stop the UK leaving nor to keep it trapped in the customs union or the single market against its will.

On March 29th, 2017, the UK informed the EU that it had decided to leave. This began a two-year exit period, governed by the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Article 50 mandates that the EU should negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement with the departing state and also a “framework” for the future relationship between the departing state and the European Union.

However, and this is an often underappreciated point, there is no legal obligation on the departing state to accept the terms of any Withdrawal Agreement that the EU may offer. It is entirely free to reject the proposed Withdrawal Agreement and leave with no agreement, a so-called no-deal exit.

Leaving with no agreement would greatly complicate subsequent negotiations on future trade and other relations between the departing country and the EU. It is not legal reasons which compel a departing country to work towards a Withdrawal Agreement. It is pragmatic considerations of future national self-interest that compel it to do so. No near neighbour of the EU can escape the geographic pull of its single market.

But if the departing country wants to leave without a Withdrawal Agreement then the EU will not stop it doing so, no matter what damage such a departure will do to the departing state and the EU. The circumstances in which it leaves is entirely a matter for the departing country to decide.

When the UK informed the EU that it wanted to leave, the EU identified three critical elements for inclusion in any Withdrawal Agreement: the settlement by the UK of its financial obligations to the EU; the safeguarding of the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, and measures necessary to avoid the return of a border in Ireland to protect the fragile peace created by the Good Friday Agreement.

At the same time, the EU made it clear that until agreement was reached on these three issues there would be no talks on the future relationship, despite the UK pressing to have such talks run in parallel.

It is worth remembering, as we noted here two weeks ago, and as Simon Nixon pointed out in his Times column this week, Brexit thinking was always premised on the belief that the nation state is the only legitimate form of political organisation and as a “supra-national” entity the EU was “illegitimate” and, as such, would soon collapse. In such circumstances, negotiating post-exit terms would be easy.

Michael Gove’s infamous quote was rooted in this “disintegrating EU” belief:

“The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want”

Another leading Brexiteer, Norman Lamont, wrote an article in the Telegraph in which he stated:

Not only can Britain leave the EU and have access to the single market, we’d actually get a better deal.”

Well, the EU did not collapse, but it also turned out that the UK held very few cards. Further, access to the single market without acceptance of the obligations involved was not on offer. The realisation quickly dawned on Theresa May’s government that, despite all the Brexiteer bravado about how easy leaving the EU would be, the country would be in no shape to leave on March 29, 2019, no matter what deal the EU offered. A transition period would be needed.

Two years was offered and accepted. Within that period the UK would be subject to all EU laws but would have no involvement in EU decision processes. The transition would also allow time and space to negotiate the details of the future EU/UK relationship.

So, in December 2017, the UK signed off on a report which recorded agreement between the EU and the UK on the three issues of financial obligations, citizens’ rights and the avoidance of a border in Ireland. Within days, some within the UK cabinet were trying to row back on the commitments given, suggesting that the Irish backstop was only an “aspiration”, not a legal commitment.

To get around the difficulties created by the Irish backstop May asked the UK if the concept of a backstop could be extended to the whole of the UK. Against its better judgement, the EU agreed.

But rather than see this for the generous accommodation it was on the part of the EU, giving the UK, post-Brexit, unprecedented access to the single market for a non-EU country, Brexiteers saw it as an attempt to keep the UK trapped in the EU’s custom and regulatory orbit. Ultimately, this led to the ousting of May and her replacement by Johnson.

Johnson wanted to bin the backstop, completely. No ifs or buts. He suggested he was prepared to run with the rest of May’s deal, but the backstop had to go. In response, the EU made it clear that the backstop stayed, unless and until alternative arrangements could be developed. These arrangements would need to achieve the same result as the backstop, the avoidance of a border on the island of Ireland.

To date, Johnson’s negotiators have been unable to put forward any such alternative arrangements that would be “legally operative”. All they have done is to put forward “non-papers”, papers which, to use an American phrase, run ideas up the flagpole to see if anyone will salute. So far, no one has. In fact, Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said that far from moving the process forward, they have taken it backwards, tearing up agreements made with Theresa May.

Johnson believed that he had a trump card. He would tell the EU that if it did not give him the Brexit deal he wanted he would take the UK out of the EU on October 31 next, “do or die”.

He seems genuinely to have believed that the threat of a no-deal Brexit would be sufficiently terrifying to the EU that it would walk away from the Irish backstop and tear up the rules of its single market. All that was required was assertive “bulldog spirit” and the Europeans would crumble.

Well, the bulldog barked, actually more of a yelp than a bark, but to no effect. Apparently, bulldogs are not what they were in Churchill’s day.

As Johnson threatened to take the UK out of the EU on October 31 without a deal, MPs in the House of Commons, who knew full well the damage such a move would do to the UK economy, moved to block it. They passed a Bill which instructed the government, in the absence of an agreement on Brexit at the next European Council on October 17, to request a further extension to the Article 50 process.

Johnson cried foul, insisting that removing the threat of no-deal undermined his negotiating position with the EU. He branded the Benn Act, as the legislation came to be known, as a “surrender bill”. To prevent parliament tying his hand further, he suspended it on the pretext that he needed time to prepare a “Queen’s Speech”, the formal statement made by the queen outlining the government’s legislative program at the start of a parliamentary session.

This week the UK’s Supreme Court found the suspension unlawful because the alleged reason for the suspension, the preparation of a Queen’s Speech, was not the real reason, which was to deny parliamentarians the chance to hold to account the government’s approach to the Brexit process.

Despite all the noise and the bluster the UK only has three Brexit choices.

  1. Leave with an agreement
  2. Leave without an agreement
  3. Revoke the decision to leave and stay

The choice of which road to go down is the UK’s and the UK’s alone.

If the UK wants a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU then the EU has laid out its terms. The UK can accept those terms or reject them. Certainly, it can ask for better terms than are on offer but if the EU refuses to change its terms the EU cannot then be blamed for causing a no-deal Brexit. A person selling a house is entitled to set their price. If you do not want to buy at their price that is your decision, not theirs. You may argue that the price or the terms are unrealistic, but it is for the seller to decide what is in their own best interest.

Throughout the whole Brexit process there has been a refusal on the part of Brexiteers to accept that they cannot dictate the terms of their departure from the European Union. They promised the UK electorate that they could leave the EU but still retain all the benefits of EU membership, but with none of the costs.

There would be no pain, only gain. In Johnson’s words, they could have their cake and eat it. It hasn’t worked out the way they hoped. They never planned because they were so sure the EU would crumble, that Brexit would be the first domino. But when the dominos failed to topple, and the EU instead went from strength to strength, they were left howling at the wind.

A piece of legislation which says that the UK cannot leave the EU without an agreement is not a “surrender” to the EU. It is, instead, a recognition of the damage that a no-deal Brexit will do to the UK and to the many businesses that depend on free and frictionless trade with the EU. If it is a “surrender” it is a surrender to reality.

From the start, the EU has been clear. If you want to leave with an agreement, here are our terms. If those terms are not acceptable to you, then you can go without an agreement. We are not stopping you. The choice is, as it always has been, the UK’s and the UK’s alone.

“Brexit Syndrome” does strange things to the mind. Recovery can take a very long time.