Brexit: our negotiators don't know where we're going—or how to get there

Meeting the Article 50 deadline will require almost super-human effort—and we've frittered away months already

June 20, 2017
Brexit Secretary David Davis is welcomed to Brussels by EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images
Brexit Secretary David Davis is welcomed to Brussels by EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images

Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot features two characters continually discussing an event that may never happen. At the end, they resolve to go, but do not move. The comparisons with Brexit are obvious. But now the waiting is over, negotiations have begun and the protagonists are set to move, it remains unclear where they will go, how they will get there, or who will lead them.

The first day of negotiations was instructive. In the first dispute, over sequencing of negotiations, Brexit Secretary David Davis promised the "row of the summer," but had capitulated by the evening press conference. He could not win, not only because the EU carefully and unanimously agreed its negotiating mandate months ago, but because Brussels holds the cards. They can afford to say no, and we cannot. Despite the certainty of his loss, still Davis publicised the fight. Such antics will have convinced the EU of a long-held suspicion: he is not bluffing when he talks of Britain's superior position. He believes his own hype.

Even before the election result, the government's deficiencies—and specifically the prime minister's—were painfully obvious to the European Union. Officials in Brussels had long expressed open alarm at Theresa May's commitment to a hard Brexit—especially given that the PM did not appear to understand the economic and political consequences. But her U-turns on national insurance and social care demonstrated more fundamental weakness. May revealed through her actions that she would reverse a policy within days if tabloid editors or opinion polls disapproved. Senior figures in the EU consequently feared that they could strike an agreement which swiftly unravelled following a negative domestic response. Despite her apparently unassailable power in parliament, which enabled her to pass the Article 50 bill unamended, the EU realised that the prime minister was not in command of the Brexit process.

The disaster of the election has not only compounded May's problems, but added graver ones. The first lies in tragic irony: the prime minister, dominant in parliament and weak in Brussels, asked the British electorate to “strengthen her negotiating hand.” This was a false premise: the success of her negotiating hand does not depend on a larger parliamentary majority but a more convincing negotiating strategy. Now, with the majority gone altogether, the bogus requirement has become valid for the first time. The EU has only ever cared about the stability of May's government and power to secure parliamentary support. Once previously assured, both have been sharply compromised. The prime minister finds herself weaker in Westminster and in Brussels. Any successor would likely encounter the same problem.

"Brussels dreads a scenario in which Britain's demands constantly change or its government falls"
If the negotiations were a zero-sum configuration, Britain's weakness would automatically boost the EU's strength. In some ways, it does, as the government could be forced by public or parliamentary pressure to concede key points—perhaps financial contributions, perhaps even a Swiss-style adapted free movement—in order to ensure some form of deal. Many in London and Brussels consider that the election result justifies or even requires such compromise. Mostly, however, the EU will be as unhappy about the government's predicament as the government itself. Brussels dreads a scenario in which Britain's demands constantly change or its government falls. The Article 50 deadline requires military precision and almost super-human effort. Three unproductive months have already passed. Even mild disruption to the timetable could result in collapse.

The prime minister's future strategy is now determined less by oblique concepts of national interest than parliamentary arithmetic. One of the few details the Conservatives revealed before the election was their preference of “no deal over a bad deal.” Every other party in parliament—and thus a majority—has ruled out such a scenario. The government and EU both know this to be the case, but the government has so far refused to concede the point. It will thus be compelled to do so after the negotiations have begun.

After the first contentious issues have been resolved in the negotiations—specifically EU citizens' rights and the clearing of accounts—talk will turn to the issue of the border in Ireland. The common consensus in Brussels (and Dublin) is that the EU cares more about Northern Ireland than the British government does. The parliamentary strength of the Democratic Unionist Party will ensure that Northern Ireland becomes a greater priority in Westminster, and the DUP would insist upon a final Brexit deal—but in the short term this will not assist negotiations. Specifically, the DUP's current position requires the UK to withdraw from the customs union. This hard Brexit, however, comes with a hard border attached. Such an outcome gravely threatens island-of-Ireland jobs, supply chains and entire industries, and renders politically undesirable customs posts a legal and technical necessity. The EU will do its best, but cannot work miracles or save us from ourselves. The prospect of bespoke arrangements is almost certainly fantasy: the government does not have the time or strength to re-write the EU's rules at the same time as it is walking out of the door.
"Most EU experts believe that revocation of Article 50 is legally possible, but as with so much in the EU, the main answer is political"
If the talks do collapse, and a “no deal” scenario grows likelier, the government risks directly opposing an electorate that has voted against such an eventuality. Assuming that there has been no new election that tests the will of the people, parliament will presumably refuse to thwart it. The government will therefore have three options: accept whatever deal the EU has proposed—perhaps the single market and customs union with the most minor of adjustments; ask the EU to prolong Article 50; or revoke it altogether. Revocation would be politically costly, but on a scale of humiliation, leaving without a deal could make Suez look like spinach caught in the teeth. Most EU experts believe that revocation is legally possible, but as with so much in the EU, the main answer is political. As recent French and German statements have made clear, the EU would still rather have Britain in than kick us out.

While the population has waited over the last year for the action of Brexit to begin, senior ministers have denied the scale of the challenge, its potential impact, and Britain's relative weakness. Unlike in Waiting for Godot, the protagonists will now go, and the consequences will explicitly arrive. We may in time conclude that they were wiser not to move.