The view from the other side

July 28, 2017

The Brexit negotiation process is reported in the UK almost wholly via the prism of domestic politics. The impression given by the liberal and left of centre media, who on the whole represent a constituency who are bitterly opposed to both the Tory government and to Brexit, is that the the negotiation process is chaotic, likely to lead to a disastrous outcome for the UK and is unlikely to lead to an agreement within the Article 50 timetable. Generally the impression given is that this is the fault of the UK government and tthat the EU side is a paragon of calm efficiency and level headiness. This is also connected to the notion that a chaotic Brexit would be bad for Britain but that the EU could just shrug it of.

In fact the chaos and lack of coherency ascribed to the UK side can equally be applied to the EU side in the negotiations and the main obstacles to a formal Brexit agreement are mainly on the EU side. This is because the formal process of Article 50 negotiations places the responsibility for its conduct in the hands of precisely those parts of the EU institutional apparatus who are most likely to come to the table with a political agenda centred on the need to ensure that the UK’s departure should be a painful one. They very much do not want the UK to emerge from the process of Brexit in a benign state, they want the process of exiting the EU to be as painful as possible, primarily in order to deter others but also because of idealogical rigidity and a general arrogance that comes from the habit of exercising power without democratic accountability.

For those reasons it is unlikely that the formal institutional and administrative process of Article 50 negotiations will deliver an agreement in the time left and that it will require a political intervention, primarily by the Germans (who will have to slap down the French) to come to a sensible and mutually beneficial agreement. The German government will not make a move until after this year’s election and even then will probably let the Article 50 process continue until is is obviously running out of time before making its move. My expectation is that an interim deal of some sort will be cobbled together at the last minute via intergovernmental agreement and that the interim arrangements could run for several years until being formalised. A lot can happen before the Brexit process finally comes to an end.

German politicians are already starting to become restive as they watch the EU institutions mucking things up.

In an article in The Times Hans-Olaf Henkel, a senior German politician who is deputy head of the European Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee, accuses the European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier of trying to punish Britain by making a deliberate “mess” of key elements of Brexit.

Henkel says in the article that:

“Mr Verhofstadt [The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator] is an ambitious politician who wants to achieve a United States of Europe. In my view, he is responsible in no small part for the disaster of Brexit. It was his attitude, not typical of most of us in Brussels, that allowed Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to whip up anti-EU sentiment in the UK.

Mr Verhofstadt now wants to punish the British, full stop. He says he doesn’t want to, but I’m afraid he does. My impression is that Mr Barnier wants to do the same. The reason is simple. They would seek to make sure that Brexit is such a catastrophe that no country dares to take the step of leaving the EU again.

This is a terrible situation for us all. In my country, Germany, we value the ties we have with the British and we value your voice in Europe. So I say to MPs: if you want to think again on Euratom, we are all ears.

In the 1990s, I came to the UK to urge you to join the euro. Thank goodness you didn’t. The single currency has been a disaster, creating social and economic havoc.”

Now Michael Theurer, the economics spokesman for German’s Free Democrats ( a possible coalition partner with Merkel’s CDU after the coming election), has warned that it would be a fatal error for Europe to humiliate Britain.

“We are hearing an uttering of concerns from German companies and trade unions about what could happen if there is a crash-Brexit and no deal in place. Criticism is growing”.

People are only just starting to realise the full dimensions of this. There could be WTO duties, visas, all kinds of things. Small enterprises are very concerned. There are also a lot of German companies that rely on financing from the City of London, and they are very happy with the service they get now.

Nobody [on the EU side] is in charge. There is a lack of priorities. We absolutely need close coordination with the economy minister taking the lead.”

The general thrust of left/liberal reporting is all about how the British government is making a mess of Brexit, how they haven’t a clue what they are doing or what they are up against, how the UK negotiators (who it is worth remembering include some of the sharpest minds in Whitehall) are so totally useless they even turned up for a recent negotiating session alongside the Brexit minister David Davis without so much as a single sheet of paper in front of them, in contrast to Barnier’s team who were seated behind sheaves of notes. After that meeting it was also reported that the UK team departed after merely an hour. This was promptly interpreted as “Davis is lazy/incompetent/has a rotten negotiating hand/had no negotiating hand because the government is in chaos”.

Is any of this really likely? Isn’t it just as likely that the UK team didn’t need any notes because the real negotiating work is being hammered out elsewhere (which it is), that it has a negotiating strategy that is akin to playing a poker game, and that the last thing it’s going to do is show its hand early?

Here’s a snippet from a Press Association report yesterday that you may not have read in the papers:

“Insiders close to the talks said EU staff were surprised at how prepared the UK side was on the detail of the issues, with negotiators going into talks with packs of papers. EU negotiators are also said to have remarked on the agility of Britain’s position since it is not pinned down by the kind of detailed position papers produced by Brussels.”

It seems inherently plausible, or at least as plausible as ‘the Brits are cocking it up because of stupidity’ narrative, that it is unlikely that an EU negotiation team answerable to a complex system of overlapping EU bureaucracies used to moving at a snails pace would be lead to it having an agile, coherent and flexible negotiation stance as compared to a negotiation team answerable to a single government?

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