Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Brexiters behave as if Britain was being forced to leave the EU

I have written several times on this blog about the failure of leading Brexiters to take responsibility for the consequences of Brexit, for example the inevitability of a hard border in Ireland given that Britain is leaving the single market and customs union.

There have been several more examples this week, starting with the announcement that the EMA will move to Amsterdam and the EBA to Paris although it was only in April that David Davis was saying that there was no reason why these agencies should leave London just because of Brexit, and that could somehow be achieved by negotiation. Yet the agencies are leaving because Britain is leaving the EU, they are not being ‘taken away’ from us.

Then again, there are finally signs that the government are going to go at least a reasonable distance towards agreeing to meet Britain’s financial obligations – but ‘only if the EU agrees to begin trade talks’. Yet it is the EU which has said doing so is one of the pre-conditions for starting trade talks, and these only arise because Britain is leaving the EU.

Or, another issue, when Michel Barnier re-affirmed that if Britain leaves the single market it means just that Brexiters were outraged and yet it is they (or at least the hard Brexiters) who insist that leaving the EU must mean leaving the single market. And his suggestion that the most that Britain could hope for on trade was a Canada-style deal ‘dashed Britain’s hopes’. Yet such a deal was held up by many leading Brexiters during the Referendum campaign as precisely what they wanted.

But I am beginning to think that there is more to this than Brexiters’ failure to accept (or perhaps even to understand) the consequences of their decision. Brexiters bemoan the failure of remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit but they themselves seem singularly lacking in any big, coherent, optimistic, strategic or even enjoyable vision of Brexit. Given that (as they constantly say) they won the vote and are now enacting their dream policy you might expect such a vision, and if it existed many of the current problems would fall away. They would happily be saying ‘sure, we will meet our pre-existing financial commitments, these are of little importance given the exciting new opportunities Brexit brings’. Or, on citizens’ rights, they would be saying ‘fine, it is a little unusual to have another court overseeing these rights, but we recognize this is an unusual situation and if you want this, it is not a big problem’. As for Barnier’s speech, the response would be no more than a raised eyebrow, as if to say ‘of course we are leaving the single market, we told you that, remember’.

In short, we would see a generous, consensus-building approach to making an agreement with the EU, rather than a transactional, fractious, suspicious ‘negotiation’ in which at each step Britain is dragged to agreeing things it at first says it will not agree, squandering time and goodwill. After all, if Brexit were as wonderful as they claim, why not be generous? Why not be magnanimous? We’re free, and heading for much better things! For that matter, the constant harrying of remainers for their lack of enthusiasm, their hang-dog resentment, not to mention their sabotage and treachery would all be irrelevant for Brexiters who were confident, even joyful, about the decision they had made.

Then there is the German election and its aftermath. For months, Brexiters have insisted that a strong Merkel government would assure a good deal for Britain; now they say with equal certainty that a weakened Merkel will be to our advantage. These things can’t both be true – and in fact neither are, the German stance on Brexit will be much the same whatever its government – but the point is that if Brexiters had a vision they believed in, they would not be bothered one way or another about the composition of the German government.

Equally, having won their great prize, why are Brexiters so impatient? They say that this is a historic moment, and one which will undo forty years or more of serfdom to the EU. Yet after just a few months of the exit process – some of which were lost to the General Election anyway – more and more of the Brexit ultras are calling for Britain simply to pull out of the talks immediately. Not only are they unwilling to devote the years that, realistically, such an historic task warrants, they are not even willing to expend months on it.

So instead of the generosity, confidence, patience and optimism that might be expected to accompany victory what we see amongst Brexiters is an oscillation between sour, crabby, resentful anger and bellicose, belligerent, defiant anger. That anger seems, if anything, to grow with each passing week: constantly paranoid, fearful of ‘betrayal’ and completely devoid of pleasure. I’ve written elsewhere about how May’s Florence speech was most remarkable for sounding like a case for staying in the EU rather than leaving it. Observing Brexiters’ behaviour now, the thing that strikes me most forcibly is that almost all the time they act and talk not as if Britain had chosen to leave the EU but exactly as if Britain was being expelled by the EU.

As a thought experiment, imagine that this were so. And then imagine how Britain would respond. If you do so, something very uncanny happens. We could expect in those circumstances such things as: trying to argue that, even so, agencies like EMA and EBA could stay in London; paying the minimum possible financial settlement; rejecting the EU’s preferred arrangements for citizens’ rights; hoping against hope that the German political situation would prove helpful; seeking multiple opt-ins to the single market, and frictionless trade despite being ejected from the customs union; insisting that the Irish border remain uncontrolled because of the Good Friday Agreement; and considerable anger and suspicion about the EU and anyone in the UK seen to be ‘siding’ with the EU. In short, almost everything that Brexiters say now, in the circumstance of having chosen to leave, makes much more sense as a response to being forced to leave.

Update (24/11/17): Just hours after I wrote this post a row erupted which perfectly illustrates the argument I made. It was announced that British cities would not be eligible for consideration as European City of Culture 2023. The reason is that to be eligible cities must be in a country which is an EU member, an EFTA or EEA member, or aspiring to become an EU member. By 2023 none of these criteria will be met by Britain. This led to a huge outpouring of anger from Brexiters, railing against the pettiness, spite and hostility of the EU. Thus precisely acting as if the EU was excluding Britain rather than Britain choosing – by virtue of leaving the EU and the single market – to exclude itself.
Whilst in itself one of the more minor effects of Brexit, the reaction to it is not just illustrative of the argument in this post but a foretaste of what will surely be the far greater anger that will accompany the far greater effects which are to come. The story is also interesting – and depressing – for seeing a re-run of many of the tired, discredited lines of the Referendum campaign. Thus some, such as John Glen MP, objected that ‘we are leaving the EU, not Europe’ as if that was anything other than a geographical truism. The point, of course, is that in leaving the EU and associated institutions we are leaving all of the agencies and arrangements of those institutions.
Even more depressing was a spokesperson for the Prime Minister objecting that this was unfair since Norway, whilst not being a member of the EU, had been eligible (the reason being, of course, that they Norway is in EFTA/EEA). This takes us right back to the repeated invocations of the ‘Norway model’ by Brexiters before the Referendum, a model which the PM has, since the Lancaster House speech, insisted is not acceptable as it would not satisfy ‘the will of the people’. It really seems as if, despite the trillions of words written and spoken about Brexit, we are just going round in circles.
And this episode also illustrates in a small way some of the big issues about Brexit. First, that the government had allowed cities to make bids against the advice of civil servants who had realised that there would be a problem about eligibility. Second, and most tragic of all, that the government – and Boris Johnson in particular – had wanted bids to made as “part of a plan for a dynamic, outward-looking and Global Britain” following Brexit.
So this is a microcosm of Brexit. In pursuit of its global future after Brexit the UK enters a competition which it is not eligible for because of Brexit, urged on by pro-Brexit politicians against the advice of those who actually know it is impossible. And when that impossibility becomes impossible to ignore, Brexiters denounce the EU for excluding them from that which they have decided to exclude themselves. I imagine that there is technical term in linguistics for when an irony becomes a metaphor, which would be useful to apply to this. More useful still, as Brexit unfolds, will be a term to describe a farce that becomes a tragedy.

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