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A handbag is needed to break Brexit’s dialogue of the deaf

June 9th, 2018

Too many sides are frustrated by incomprehension

“Brexit means Brexit”, Theresa May once said – and if only it did. Leaving the European Union was never meant to be an easy thing and Britain is making a fine show of just how difficult it can be. The structural and procedural problems are, however, not even half the problem; the greater part of it is an inability of the government to meaningfully talk to the EU, to parliament or even to itself. So many people and institutions are thinking in ways that lie outside the parameters that the people they’re talking to are used to thinking within that Brexit has become a fog of mutual incomprehension as people simply talk past each other.

Ireland – which never knowingly simplifies anything political – remains as good an example as any. The British government wants no hard border but wants out of the Customs Union and Single Market, though parliament might force it back into one if not the other. Dublin is if anything even more keen to ensure no border and has the Commission’s forceful backing in that. However, the EU is equally insistent that there can’t be any breach in the external borders of the Single Market or Customs Union, meaning it is insisting that N Ireland remain in the Customs Union, with or without the rest of the UK – something that would be unacceptable to the government or the DUP, respectively.

Considering how keen all sides have been to pay lip-service to the Good Friday Agreement, this is more than a bit hypocritical. In fact, there’s nothing in the GFA about an open border, bar generalisations: a hard border might be against the spirit of the GFA but it wouldn’t be against its letter. Why is this happening? Because the EU cannot understand how important the unity of the UK is to the DUP, it can’t see how important it is to Leave activists for the UK to leave the CU, it will only consider its own initiatives, and the UK government won’t recognise how wedded the EU is to its principles and practices. All sides are talking past each other.

The same is true at home. Keen Leavers expect the government to just get on and do it, not understanding how difficult this is in practice without causing serious economic damage; keen Remainers fail to recognise the immense damage that would be dealt to trust in politics were they to block the referendum result, or water it down to such an extent it became meaningless.

    The consequence of all this is, inevitably, that very little has been agreed. Hence the focus on the Backstop Agreement. This is extremely dangerous territory for the government for two reasons. Firstly, the more focus there is on the Backstop Agreement, the more it becomes, de facto, the actual agreement. And secondly, but relatedly, the more acceptable the Backstop Agreement is to the EU, the more incentive it has to play so hard on the substantive negotiations that they cannot succeed.

And yet even on the Backstop Agreement, it’s the UK which is making concession after concession. Or, if you prefer, is writing off objective after objective in the hope of getting some – any – agreement. If this all sounds a bit familiar, that’s not coincidental: it’s pretty much exactly the story of Cameron’s original negotiations which took a year of hard work but resulted in so little that the deal was junked within a week as a campaigning issue.

The one negotiating tactic that Cameron did not take, and which May has not taken, was to walk away. In not so doing, both PMs implicitly confirmed to the EU that any deal was better than no deal, despite earlier assertions. The problem with that is that if the PM comes back with a really bad deal, she might not get it through parliament, which’d not only be No Deal but No Deal and No Time.

In truth, both sides’ negotiating teams know that No Deal after Brexit would be economically disastrous from Britain, if that state lasted any time – though it would be bad for the EU too, and especially for Ireland, for whom so much European trade comes via Britain. But unless a red line is seen to mean a red line then the other side will keep pushing hard wherever they want.

And to add to that is the culture that in Europe a deal is always done. The deal might be done at the final hour (or sometimes even beyond the supposedly final hour), but Eurofudge remains the sweet of the day – as it most certainly is with Brexit.

Unfortunately, fudge is not what Brexiteers want. The Fudge Culture is exactly what they object to: of the diplomatic-ministerial class making agreements far above the people, whose votes mean little; the Project rolls on. Brexit was an explicit rejection of not just the Project but its methods. As such, a failure to disengage from either the methods or the EU itself will go down very badly. Indeed, such a deal will surely be unsaleable to those who believe in Brexit, or even many of those who believe in honouring the referendum result.

Boris may, in his own way, have been right that it’s the Trump playbook that’s needed now. Given the positions adopted by the Commission and by Ireland, the options are close to being No Deal or No Brexit, which are equally unacceptable. Given the positions of the DUP and Tory Brexiteers in the Commons and the cabinet, that means No Deal.

So if the course of No Deal is set then far better to bring it on now, declare the unacceptability of the EU’s current negotiating positions, terminate the talks and walk out, than wait to be ambushed by the steamroller of events in December or next year. That at least gives time to pick up the pieces. And having shaken things up and proven that red lines really do mean red lines (as well as potentially a hard border in Ireland and no £39bn), perhaps new options might open up that wouldn’t do otherwise.

Which is why Mrs May needs to discover the Prime Ministerial Handbag.

David Herdson