by Frank Schnittger
Mon Apr 10th, 2017 at 05:06:22 PM EST
Colman has initiated an interesting debate on the likely outcomes to the Brexit negotiations, but I am far more interested in the negotiating process which I have already discussed here. The possible outcomes, both short and long term, seem pretty variable to me, effected by all sorts of difficult to predict external and internal factors. Speculation as to outcomes is fun, but based on all sorts of assumptions which require elucidation if circumstances change. So what are the factors which are likely to impact on the outcome of the negotiations? I discuss some below, but would welcome the input of those closer to the evolving political dynamics in other member states of the EU.
The first factor is the composition of the respective negotiation teams: A consensus appears to be emerging, even amongst quite conservative business correspondents, that the UK negotiating team is incredibly stupid and unfit for purpose. For instance:
The clearest example of a group of seemingly educated but actually inauthentic, unserious people is to be found in the current British cabinet. With Oxford and Cambridge degrees in abundance, Brexiteers are, on a daily basis, displaying their superficial approach to everything, incapable of paying attention to detail, clearly don't read anything and are not devoting any thought to what happens when they fail to deliver on their promises. Instead, they mouth platitudes; they promise that crashing out of the EU with no deal will be a good outcome; and they threaten war with Spain over Gibraltar.
I don't claim any especial insight into the composition of Michel Barnier's negotiating team, but they seem very well equipped to deal with the many complex issues which may arise. Moreover, they are mostly skilled technocrats, who don't have to look over their shoulders at whatever atrocities against the truth the British tabloids may commit. Some have actually negotiated previous deals with Switzerland or Norway, and others have extensive experience of actual trade negotiations. You would have to say the current score is already One to Nil to the EU before the negotiations have even started.
Secondly, the May government has committed all sorts of miss-steps in the lead up to these negotiations - from ousting the British ambassador to the EU, to appointing the bête noire of the EU, Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary. He can be guaranteed to raise hackles just when feathers need to be smoothed to reach agreement. Fox and Davies don't have any friends in the EU either, and successful negotiations are still largely a matter of trust and mutual respect.
Thirdly, May's A50 letter to the EU didn't do her any favours either, threatening a dis-improvement in security cooperation between the UK and EU if no favourable agreement is forthcoming, just when further terrorist incidents are happening throughout Europe. Nothing can be guaranteed to further distance the UK from the EU elite and populace than such a tactless threat. The subsequent threat to "go to war over Gibraltar" would provoke laughter all around, if it were not such a serious indication of the state of mind in Brexit circles in the UK. If you can be so easily trolled, your grip on reality must be limited indeed.
Fourthly, May's position appears to be entirely that of a hostage to the extreme right Brexit wing of her party. There is little indication that she could make the compromises required to achieve an agreement and survive as leader of her party and government. Perhaps she could go "to the country" and win a general election on a compromise agreement if her hard right voted against her and caused her defeat in parliament; but could she prevail if the tabloids, Labour, Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, UKIP and the hard right of her own party were all arraigned against her? It seems likely that her own "No deal is better than a bad deal" mantra would return to haunt her.
Fifthly, none of this takes any account of the emerging political dynamics within Europe and the wider world. Relationships between Brexit ally Trump and the EU seem likely to be volatile at best - given the chilly reception given to Merkel on her Washington visit. I am not close enough to the French and German election campaigns to make a comment, but would be surprised if the major pro-EU candidates - Macron, Merkel and Schultz did not advocate a hard line in defence of "European Values" - values which May's A50 letter claimed to espouse - and yet which Brexit attempts to destroy.
Two years is a very long time in politics, and much may change in that time frame. Trump could lose the mid-terms, and with it much scope to direct US foreign policy. Marcron could be elected on a pro-EU platform, and Merkel could be replaced by Schultz. Further terrorist incidents could enhance pan European solidarity against external threats, and the UK economy could see a start of a long decline associated with disinvestment by firms requiring direct access to the Single Market.
All in all, I don't see a propitious environment for a successful negotiation. Expectations are too far apart, and national political dynamics may drive them further apart in the meantime. But I am open to correction on this: How do you see the negotiating environment developing in the next two years? The EU has a long history of "muddling though" complex negotiations and coming up with a surprisingly wide consensus at the end. Do you see the pragmatists or the nationalist ideologues winning in the end?
Personally I am a pessimist. Despite the clear national interest Ireland has in a comprehensive agreement covering trade, customs, mutual regulatory recognition, and an orderly disengagement of mutual contractual obligations, I just think a successful outcome is unlikely. Theresa May is desperately trying to keep an increasingly fractious UK together, and the EU needs to demonstrate the benefits of continued membership as clearly as possible. Why stay within the EU, if many of the benefits are available outside?
As the collective memory of World War II recedes, the EU needs a coherent vision of what it will be about in the future. Mere reliance on past benefits will not be sufficient, as they will be taken for granted. At some point in the Brexit negotiations, May will appeal above the heads of the Commission negotiators to the national leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland et al for a better deal. I suspect she will meet with a cold response. Europe knows that any attempt to divide it will call into question all that has been achieved, and derail any plans they might have for the future.
If the UK wants to go it alone, so be it. But on its own it will be.