Brussels has no interest in throwing the UK off the cliff—unless we insist on jumpingby Jonathan Lis / October 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
The leaked details of Theresa May’s recent dinner with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered a vintage artefact of political gossip: a traditional mix of policy and personal drama. In these uncertain times, equally reassuring was the familiar, subsequent post-mortem, questioning who had leaked the account and why. Predictably, EU officials were accused of attempting to smear or weaken the prime minister. But whoever was responsible, the past few months have illuminated far deeper truths. First, the EU has no interest in weakening us. Second, we are critically weak without any intervention from the EU at all. Third, changing our leaders and negotiators will fundamentally change nothing.
Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of Brexit is not its enormity—which is of course real enough—but its unfamiliarity. Brexit lacks a modern precedent in both its intricacy and legally imposed urgency. While this produces fear, confusion and, at the very height of government, paralysis, the media attempts to make sense of its new environment with old language and old tropes: the weak leader (May), federalist villains (Juncker and his chief of staff Martin Selmayr), and plotters and alternative leaders who may yet save the day with their superior abilities (ranging from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn). This approach both exposes our lack of understanding and conceals a basic fact: personality is entirely secondary to the Brexit process. The problem is not the weakness of Theresa May, but of Britain.
To be clear, Theresa May, and by extension the British government, is profoundly weak. A toxic fusion of personal deficiency and repeated strategic error has led the prime minister to the brink. This has nothing to do with Britain, the EU or indeed the Brexit vote. It was May who imposed the impossible red lines of ending free movement of people while retaining all the benefits of the single market, leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice while participating in areas under its purview, and exiting the customs union while denying the need for new customs posts on the Irish border. It was also May who hubristically taunted the EU and Remainers in her 2016 conference speech, rashly called an election to boost her power a few months later, and who now finds herself debilitated at the moment she most requires credibility and strength. The EU did not conspire to write any of this Greek tragedy that May so enthusiastically staged.
“This week’s fiasco over the ‘meaningful vote’ has further demoralised parliament, which was meant to be Brexit’s institutional icon”
Britain’s shambolic leadership has, on the world stage, begun to inextricably merge with the country itself. The UK is increasingly seen as chaotic, inward-looking and deeply unsure of itself. This week’s fiascos over the “meaningful vote” which may or may not be offered to parliament, and the precise meaning of an increasingly unviable transition period, have further demoralised parliament, which was intended to be Brexit’s institutional icon. But while May turned disorder into disaster, not even Winston Churchill could have led Britain to a “victorious” Brexit: the world’s greatest card player cannot, after all, play without any cards.
Not only can half the Leave voters’ demands never be satisfied without compromising the other half, Brexit’s power dynamics remain fundamentally lopsided. The EU is larger, richer and more powerful than the UK, while the UK will suffer any harm from Brexit far more substantially than the EU. Now Article 50 has been triggered, its two-year framework grants every negotiating advantage to the EU and not the departing state—and in the absence of a deal at the end of that period, the departing state can expect to meet economic ruin. The misfortune of an incompetent prime minister compounds the disadvantage but under no circumstance creates it.
If Brexit were a zero-sum game of winners and losers, the EU might indeed rejoice at its opponent’s weakness. The opposite is in fact true. Brussels has never stood to gain anything from a Britain on its knees. The UK remains a key trade and security partner, and impacts significantly on the fortunes of one EU state in particular, Ireland. A strong Britain thus serves the EU’s interests, and so does a strong British prime minister. While the EU is negotiating with the British state and not an individual, and moreover does not care about that individual’s parliamentary majority, European leaders do need her to be strong enough to negotiate a deal with them, convince parliament and the public to support it, and then implement it. The EU can already win the concessions it wants without deliberately weakening the British government, and certainly has no interest in the ultimate sign of British collapse: a cliff-edge Brexit.
“Not even Winston Churchill could lead Britain to a ‘victorious’ Brexit: the world’s greatest card player cannot play without any cards”
Theresa May’s own position is so fragile that EU leaders have no desire to inflict further damage. This is partly motivated by sympathy, although Brussels has long noted the prime minister’s propensity for self-sabotage. May, after all, still refuses to abandon her unsquarable circles and make the necessary concessions on money and citizens’ rights, and the EU cannot help her if she will not help herself. Many EU leaders also wish to avoid the spectre of a Boris Johnson premiership, because they viscerally dislike and distrust him and know he will greatly increase the likelihood of disaster.
The truths of Britain’s position are unpalatable because they go against so much received wisdom in our media and government: that Britain will flourish in any circumstances; that Britain is stronger than its neighbours; and that strong leadership can rescue us. As Brexit dismantles European integration, it may also bring down some national myths along the way.
As for the fanciful notion that the EU wishes to weaken or defeat us, we must only resort to common sense. Brussels has no interest in throwing Britain (or for that matter the Conservative Party) off the cliff unless it insists on jumping. In this new era of bellicose rhetoric, it is worth remembering that throughout this process, our greatest enemy has not been the EU, but ourselves.