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Britain’s Brexit self-punishment.


We hear very little now of what used to be the Brexiters’ favourite line about the EU negotiations: that ‘they need us more than we need them’ and so the deal would not only be an excellent one, but completed in double-quick time.


If this blithe assurance was questioned, we were loftily told with faux-worldly certainty that the UK trade deficit combined with the German car industry (which apparently dictates EU policy) would make assurance doubly certain. It was always a ridiculous idea, and is repeated now only by the most bone-headed and inattentive.

Instead, what we hear more frequently are complaints about being punished by the EU. That trope has been growing almost since the Referendum result, and this week has been especially vocally expressed. Michel Barnier’s rather anodyne observation, during his visit to Britain on Monday, that leaving the single market and customs union inevitably meant greater barriers to trade was merely a statement of the most obvious of facts. Yet Brexiters treated it as a dastardly threat, as if it were being forced upon them rather than being the policy that they, themselves, insist on.

That was nothing, though, compared with the furore over the revelation that the EU are planning for sanctions to be used if during the transition period (if such there is to be) Britain were to break the terms agreed for it. Even the Guardian lapsed into the language of punishment to report this, whilst the pro-Brexit press went berserk. Yet in one way it is hardly a surprising development – all sorts of agreements have penalty clauses – whilst in another it reflects a situation of Britain’s own making.

That is because the way that the government have conducted themselves during the negotiations hardly inspires trust, with David Davis suggesting when the ink was still wet on it that the phase 1 agreement was not necessarily binding. For that matter, bellicose talk of a Brexit ‘war cabinet’ does nothing to engender confidence of good faith, any more than did May’s (now abandoned) implication of using security cooperation as a bargaining lever, or ‘remainer’ Hammond’s threat of Britain pursuing a different economic model of low taxes and deregulation if a deal isn’t done.

But there is a wider and more fundamental issue. Given the fragility of the present administration no one knows what the composition of the British government will be by the time we get to any transition period. It’s perfectly conceivable that the Ultras will be in full control with, say, Johnson or even Rees-Mogg in Number 10. Given the noises they have made, it’s easy to envisage such a government reneging on whatever had been agreed to in the negotiations. It is humiliating to think that the British government might not be trustworthy: but it’s a humiliation brought on Britain by the wild rhetoric of the Ultras.


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Brexiters are now locked into an endless tricycling around three different modes of conduct. There’s the Pollyannaish naivety of ‘it will all get sorted out by German car makers’; the bullish aggression of ‘no deal’ Ultras; and the outraged self-pity of ‘punishment’. Sometimes all three modes are on display at the same time. What is never on display from the Brexiters is any kind of practical plan to deliver what they want. That is fundamentally because what they want is undeliverable – in essence, undiluted political nationalism as well as undiluted economic globalism – and secondarily because by refusing to recognize that impossibility they are unable to come up with some diluted version of it which, if not desirable, might at least be achievable.

The consequence of being trapped in this cycle, to which, as argued in my previous post, May’s government are now shackled is the paralysis seen this week with the Cabinet Brexit sub-committee (that ‘war cabinet’) again having failed to come up with a plan of action. There will apparently be an Awayday to discuss it again in a couple of weeks’ time. But until some basic realities are accepted – and more especially the incompatibilities in what Brexiters want is accepted – there will be no progress. An impossible question cannot be answered no matter how long you spend discussing it.

In any case time is what we do not have. Whilst Brexiters keep going through the same old loops the rest of the world is trying, as forcefully as it can, to get them to realise this. Michel Barnier professes himself mystified that Britain will not make (and apparently doesn’t understand) the choices it needs to make. This is the nearest that diplomacy-speak can come to telling the government of another country that it appears to have gone completely round the twist. Meanwhile, the Japanese Ambassador, following a meeting of Japanese businesses with May and others ministers, warns: “if there is no profitability of continuing operation in the UK – not Japanese only – no company can continue operations. So it’s as simple as that. This is all high stakes that I think all of us need to keep in mind”. In diplomacy-speak that means not only do you seem to have gone completely round the twist, but also that if you don’t come to your senses soon your economy is going to go down the toilet.

The whole situation is beginning to resemble the plot of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, with Jack being the Brexit Ultras, the mythical Beast being the EU, Ralph being, perhaps, Theresa May, and the Conch being the Referendum result. Remainers play the role of Simon, whilst the British people have to be cast as poor old Piggy. Alas, there seems as yet to be no one to take the part of the adult who arrives to rescue the children and chide them for their un-British, brutal behaviour.🔷



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(This piece was first published on The Brexit Blog.)


(Cover: Dreamstime/Photoschmidt.)


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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.

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