Brexit negotiations mood music
5 March 2018
No change in mood music for Brexit negotiations
You can’t always get what you want.
The messaging from the Prime Minister this last week on her hopes for a Brexit deal has been clear - but the mood music hasn’t changed.
While Mrs May has set out her targets it doesn’t seem any more likely that the EU negotiating team will be impressed by these defined British objectives. Up till now, while the UK team has been playing the Hokey Cokey, the EU has consistently stuck to its clearly articulated outcomes.
A problem with these negotiations during the last 18 months is that the EU team hasn’t actually negotiated. Even when Britain thinks it has a breakthrough - i.e. with the Irish border - these little victories are fleeting once it is understood what the knock-on requirements are. In this instance it means remaining in the Customs Union - which in turn would prevent the UK negotiating new trade relationships outside the EU.
Looking forward it is worrisome that there is such a great distance between the two sides. The EU is quite naturally not interested in striking a deal. It has told the UK from the beginning what sacrifices are needed to get what it wants - the UK in return has told the EU that there is no going over a number of supposed ‘red lines’. It could be that there are only two possible outcomes to this process - if indeed I am right and the EU will not negotiate.
1. Accept the position offered by the EU. This means forgetting about the ‘red-lines’ and this Brexit-lite solution would look a bit like the current EU membership, with full fees, freedom of movement, customs union, barrier-free trade, banking passports etc. It sounds a bit like being in the EU but without any say in EU affairs. I am not sure if many people who voted for Leave would see this as a happy outcome - but it feels like this is the only option that the EU negotiating team is interested in working towards.
2. Forget the negotiations and go straight to the Hard Brexit and whatever that will mean. This will be dramatic and a huge shock to both the UK and EU. It is maybe what those who voted Leave did want - without really knowing what it would mean.
The relationship between the two negotiating teams is curious. The UK is full of bluster, seemingly ill-prepared but keen to work by the seat of its pants. It probably imagines a last-minute heroic scrap to get a negotiated solution (calling on the spirit of some now questionable British historical fictional character, who was always able to drag victory from the jaws of defeat) - leaving the final details so close to the wire that the UK gets some of what it wants without giving up too much in return. In complete contrast the EU team appears cold, briefs regularly to the media about what has happened in the talks and treats the UK as supplicants. Anything it offers is done as a favour and we must remember as they say regularly and repetitively - the EU did not request for the UK to leave. So it is under no obligation to be helpful, unless it is in its own (remaining members) interests.
My concern with the EU approach is that the UK does not see itself as a supplicant to the talks, at least in so far as its own national self-image. It is a sovereign nation negotiating on equal terms. If the EU wants homage (and the historical image that springs to mind is of a teenage Edward III on his knees before his liege lord King Philip VI of France) it is going to end in tears for both sides.
However, in the immediate term, all this discussion of the UK position has been supplanted by the sudden rhetoric from the USA, where the President is just sparking a rather interesting trade war between the US and everyone else. The EU and UK may find they suddenly have a common purpose - or the UK will begin to wonder how it can leverage the Special Relationship to persuade the EU to start negotiating on Brexit.
After all, if you try you might just get what you need.