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Disastrously successful. The EU’s Brexit negotiation

January 26th, 2019

I’m going to go all Godwin on you. Sorry. When people talk about the causes of World War Two, they often mention how Hitler was emboldened by his early success remilitarising the Rhineland without any real consequence, showing that the Treaty of Versailles was violable. This was not, however, the first occasion on which the settlement of the First World War was set aside by the losers.

At 100 years’ distance, Germany was the loser of the First World War that looks to have got off by some way the lightest. Both the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire were dismembered. The Treaty of Trianon still rankles with many Hungarians to this day. The Treaty of Sèvres, which was the first attempt to deal with the position of Turkey, never got to be fully implemented.

The terms of Sèvres were brutal to the Turks. Not only was the Ottoman empire dismantled, Anatolia itself was carved up with the bulk of it put in Italian, French and British zones of influence. Armenia was handed a large chunk of modern north east Turkey. A new Kurdistan, borders to be confirmed, was mooted. The Straits were made into an international zone. Substantially all of Eastern Thrace, Turkey’s European possessions, were to be given to Greece, along with almost all the Aegean islands. Smyrna, the area of Anatolia around Izmir, was to be put in a Greek zone of influence with a referendum to be held as to whether to join Greece.

It was a triumph of negotiation for the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos. A triumph, and a disaster. For the Greeks simply did not have the might and main to hold what they had negotiated. The insurgent Turkish forces under Kemal Ataturk swept the old regime away and drove the Greeks from Anatolia, then forced the Allies to restore Eastern Thrace to them also. There followed massive population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, bringing to an end more than 2000 years worth of Greek presence on the Anatolian coast.

This was not just a matter of local interest. It directly led to the fall of Lloyd George and of the ending of a common foreign policy between Britain and the Dominions. Most importantly, it showed that the post-war settlement was not set in tablets of stone but very much mutable. Long before the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the precedent had been set.

The EU in general and Ireland in particular seem to have made the same mistake in negotiating the terms of Brexit as Venizelos made. The best outcome is one that will actually stick, not the one with nominally the most favourable terms. It has been apparent for a very long time that Theresa May is not in secure control of Parliament and to proceed as if she is was reckless.

Parliament has rejected the negotiated deal by a massive majority. It will be asked to consider it again next week and all the signs are that it will reject it by a similarly massive majority next week too, or possibly passing it by tacking on a proviso that the EU has repeatedly ruled out as unacceptable.

What next? The EU is currently taking the line that it is for Britain to come up with a new position.  Certainly Britain needs to do that. This mess, however, is as much of the EU’s making as it is Britain’s and if Britain were to leave with no deal on 29 March 2019 that would be a disaster for the EU, creating a new alienated power on its west flank, acting as a surly bookend to match Russia. Never mind the economic fallout, the geopolitics would be grisly. It would be the most consequential new faultline in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The consequences for Ireland specifically look potentially even worse. Geographically cut off from the rest of the EU, and facing a new age with worse relations with its closest neighbour and second biggest trading partner than it has had in living memory, Brexit could turn out to be even worse than Ireland had feared as its worst case scenario.

Even if the deal is somehow resuscitated, which currently feels like an attempt to defibrillate a skeleton, it is apparent that British politicians share a consensus of loathing for it. It looks like the reverse of a lasting settlement, one to be picked apart over years and decades. It would suck time, energy and goodwill out of the relationship between Britain and the EU and cause lasting damage to both sides.

It takes two to disentangle and the EU needs to start rethinking and rethinking fast.  Unfortunately, neither the EU nor the UK protagonists are noted for their agility of thought and action.

There was a lot of criticism of David Cameron as being an essay crisis Prime Minister. Right now I for one would be fully in favour of having an essay crisis Prime Minister: it is exactly what the time requires. Is there any chance of luring him out from his shed?

Alastair Meeks