Brexit, British Government, Michel Barnier, Negotiating

A tale of two speeches by Gove and Frost


The sting was in the tail. It was the last few paragraphs that really told the story. You couldn’t mistake what the story was. And it is still the story today. It is a never-ending story.

British Brexiteers will never rest content until the EU collapses. Which is why an agreement between the EU and the UK is close to impossible. How do you cut a deal with people who believe your very existence is illegitimate and would happily see you implode?

In 2016, some months before the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove then, as now, a UK cabinet minister made a speech  setting out the case for Brexit. The speech was called:  The facts of life say leave, but most people better remember it for one of its key lines “The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.

According to Gove, after a vote to leave the EU the UK government would take its time before triggering the Article, 50 exit process. It would sound out the EU and individual European governments on the scope of a future deal. It would do nothing in haste. And, of course, he confidently predicted that German auto makers, Italian prosecco producers and French food growers would all immediately pressurise their governments to cut the UK a sweet deal. None of which is exactly what has happened since June 2016.

But what really catches the attention about Gove’s speech are the last couple of pages. Because in those pages Gove is in fact calling for the disintegration of the EU. If the UK votes to leave, he claims, other countries will soon follow and the EU as we know it will give way to a new, looser arrangement of free-trading, sovereign nations. His words are worth quoting at length because today Gove is charged with overseeing the negotiations between the UK and the EU. And his souverainist agenda is what drives the UK’s negotiating position.

Gove’s own words tell the story best.

What will enrage, and disorientate, EU elites is the UK’s success outside the Union. Regaining control over our laws, taxes and borders and forging new trade deals while also shedding unnecessary regulation will enhance our competitive advantage over other EU nations. Our superior growth rate, and better growth prospects, will only strengthen. Our attractiveness to inward investors and our influence on the world stage will only grow.

Not only will the UK leave the EU, it will, in Gove’s view, become a competitor to the EU, economically and politically outstripping the EU. Now if an employee was leaving your company and in doing so announced that they were going to set up in competition with you but still wanted to have a highly advantageous business relationship with you, you would be unlikely to give them what they wanted. But that, in a nutshell, is the UK’s position.

Gove went on to argue that while the UK’s “success” would provoke both angst and even resentment among EU elites, it would send a very different message to the EU’s peoples.

They will see that a different Europe is possible. It is possible to regain democratic control of your own country and currency, to trade and co-operate with other EU nations without surrendering fundamental sovereignty to a remote and unelected bureaucracy. And, by following that path, your people are richer, your influence for good greater, your future brighter.

So, yes there will be “contagion” if Britain leaves the EU. But what will be catching is democracy. There will be a new demand for more effective institutions to enable the more flexible kind of international cooperation we will need as technological and economic forces transform the world.

Now I don’t know any way to read this other than as a call for other countries to follow the UK’s example, leave the EU and “take back control”.

Actually, it is more than a call. It is a prediction, “…yes, there will be contagion”. Our vote to Leave will liberate and strengthen those voices across the EU calling for a different future – those demanding the devolution of powers back from Brussels and desperate for a progressive alternative.

In case anyone should be in any doubt about what he wanted, Gove spelt it out:

But for Europe, Britain voting to leave will be the beginning of something potentially even more exciting – the democratic liberation of a whole Continent. If we vote to leave we will have – in the words of a former British Prime Minister – saved our country by our exertions and Europe by our example.

Now, it will have come as a surprise to most Europeans to learn that they were in need of liberation from the European Union. European countries have known real subjugation, either at the hands of the Nazis or the Soviets, or both. Which is why they built the European Union, to guard against such obscenities ever happening again. They were not about to indulge the “national liberation struggle” fantasies of a public school/Oxbridge, London-metropolitan-elite, newspaper columnist turned politician. There was no sudden rush by young radicals across Europe to pin posters of Gove to their walls, the way the soixantards did with Guevara.

Gove’s belief that Brexit would trigger a domino effect leading to the collapse of the European Union, or that it would be mortally wounded at the very least, goes a long way to explaining why the Brexiteers never had a plan for what was to happen after the UK left the EU. Why have a plan to deal with an organisation that in your heart of hearts you knew would shortly cease to exist? All the UK had to do was to leave, watch the EU crumble and then step in to build a new Europe in its own image.

Which leaves you between a rock and a hard place when the fundamental premise on which your strategy is based not only turn out to be completely wrong but actually has the opposite effect of strengthening your perceived adversary.

But rather than rethink how to proceed and to develop a plan that would minimise the damage Brexit would do to the UK economy, the Brexiteers decided to double-down. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again.

Four years on and another speech. This time from David Frost, now the UK’s lead on the Brexit negotiations, which are overseen by Gove. Speaking in Brussels earlier this year, Frost set out to explain Brexit to what he regarded as slow-learning Europeans.

He took as his starting point the 18th century book Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke, whom he claims as “one of my country’s great political philosophers”.

Now, I will leave it to others to explain how Frost misinterprets the work of the Irishman Burke, who Frist wrongly claims as English. Being Irish, Burke knew a thing or two about real colonial subjugation at the hands of the English, but that discussion is for another day.

What is of more interest is Frost’s reprise of Govian themes of Brexit as a light in the dark to European nations in the grip of the evil EU empire. Borrowing from Burke, Frost suggests that Europe is now on the cusp of another revolution:

…the reappearance on the political scene not just of national feeling but also of the wish for national decision-making and the revival of the nation state. Brexit is the most obvious example for that, but who can deny that we see something a bit like it in different forms across the whole Continent of Europe? I don’t think it is right to dismiss this just as a reaction to austerity or economic problems or a passing phase, or something to be ‘seen off’ over time. I believe it is something deeper. Actually, I don’t find it surprising – if you can’t change policies by voting, as you increasingly can’t in this situation – then opposition becomes expressed as opposition to the system itself.

Later in his speech Frost sets out the case for Brexit “sovereignty”. “We believe sovereignty is meaningful and what it enables us to do is to set our rules for our own benefit.” Obviously, in Frost’s view EU rules are for the benefit of someone else, not for its members states who actually make these rules.

Not only that, but Brexit sovereignty is going to give the UK “a huge advantage over the EU”

…the ability to set regulations for new sectors, the new ideas, and new conditions – quicker than the EU can, and based on sound science not fear of the future. I have no doubt that we will be able to encourage new investment and new ideas in this way – particularly given our plans to boost spend on scientific research, attract scientists and make Britain the best country in the world to do science.

Being an independent, sovereign nation would make the UK more nimble, quicker to make and change decisions if the initial decisions turned out to be bad decisions.

Another, less obvious advantage, is the ability to change those decisions. My experience of the EU is that it has extreme difficulty in reversing bad decisions it takes. Yet every state gets things wrong. That’s clear. Course correction is, therefore, an important part of good government. Britain will be able to experiment, correct mistakes and improve. The EU is going to find this much, much more difficult

To put an end to any doubt about what all of this meant for the negotiations on future EU/UK relations Frost, like Gove before him, set it out clearly:

A second fundamental is that we bring to the negotiations not some clever tactical positioning but the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country. It is central to our vision that we must have the ability to set laws that suit us – to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has.

So to think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing. That isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project. That’s also why we are not going to extend the transition period beyond the end of this year. At the end of this year, we would recover our political and economic independence in full – why would we want to postpone it? That is the point of Brexit.

Wrapping it up, Frost reached out to the ghost of De Gaulle.

De Gaulle, was the man who believed in a Europe of nations. He was the man who always behaved as if his country was a great country even when it seemed to have fallen very low, and thus made it become a great country yet again. That has been an inspiration to me, and those who think like me, in the low moments of the last three years.

Ah yes, if only De Gaulle had not resigned in 1969 as French president and had continued to forever veto UK membership of the EEC all would probably have been well with the world.

Instead, Frost, a soi-disant British Gaullist, finds himself having to deal with Barnier, a genuine French Gaullist, who knows that the world has moved on since the general’s day and that membership of the European Union enhances rather than diminishes national sovereignty.

All of which bring us to where we are today, on the eve of another round of EU/UK discussions.

Michel Barnier has made it clear that the UK will not be permitted to set the terms of any future relationship with the EU. As he said last week in a German radio interview:

“A third country, the United Kingdom, will not dictate the conditions of access to our market for British goods, services, data or for workers and businesses … We remain sovereign. This is my mandate.”

We can decode this as: Guess what? We are bigger than you, so our sovereignty trumps your sovereignty. Bring your sovereignty to the poker party, put it on the table and let’s see you outbid us. Good luck with that.

Frost made his speech in February last, just as Covid-19 was a spectre beginning to haunt Europe. The performance of the UK government in dealing with Covid-19 would seem to undercut all those “sunny upland” predictions from Gove, Frost and others about “our best days lie ahead of us” after the UK leaves the EU. When we see how the Johnson government has managed the Covid-19 crisis you have to wonder how they will manage the fallout from a no-deal Brexit next January.

Hugo Young, in his brilliant history of the UK and the EU, This Blessed Plot, wrote that “Messina”, the negotiation between the original six that led to the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC), was designated by the UK “almost from the start and certainly by the end, for destruction with extreme prejudice.”

In their respective speeches both Gove and Frost make it clear that it is their view that it would be in the best interests of “Europe” if the EU was destroyed “with extreme prejudice”. Reading their speeches, you can come to no other conclusion. It is there in black and white.

All of which makes the EU/UK negotiation no ordinary trade negotiation. Normally in trade talks the parties are interested in removing barriers to trade between them and getting closer to one another.

The Brexit talks are the exact opposite. They are a political negotiation in which one of the parties, the UK, wants to erect barriers where none now exist, to re-build borders that long ago disappeared.

They are a negotiation in which two of the UK’s principal players have queried the very legitimacy of the EU and called into question its right to exist. Brexiteers often assert, as here, that the EU is determined to “thwart Brexit”. They are less keen to highlight their own wish to see the EU disintegrate. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) was how the ancient Roman politician Cato finished off his speeches. Many Brexiteers would like to finish their speeches with Brussels delenda est, because for them it is only when that happens that Brexit will truly be done.

The US writer Shadi Hamid noted recently that “most political disagreements, at least today, become ideological disagreements, and ideological disagreements are essentially irreconcilable.” In their speeches Gove and Frost have made it clear that Brexit is ideological before it is anything else. The EU is unlikely to sacrifice itself to satisfy this ideology.