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Brussels or Britain, which is the land of the blind?

Politico, the on-line journal reporting on European politics, policy and government, published an opinion piece on 24 November by Eoin Drea, senior research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. The Centre is the official think tank of the European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament and to which Fine Gael is affiliated.

The title over Mr. Drea’s piece[i] reads: “Europe has learnt nothing from Bexit”. The headline below the title reinforces the message: “Brussels is blind to the economic threat the UK could become.”

Mr. Drea begins by suggesting that the EU is ignoring Brexit in the formulation of its strategic direction, a remarkable stance given the seismic nature of the event and Britain’s unique role in the EU landscape as an economic giant and member State for 47 years.

It is almost as if — as in many a Parisian’s dreams — Britain never really existed at all

Instead, in Mr. Drea’s view, the EU is focused on a strategy of “moving past Brexit”, going off to fry other, and in its own mind, bigger fish. As part of that approach, the EU has assigned sole “blame” for Brexit to the UK, whereas…

Brexit was never just a wholly British affair. It was also shaped by the strategic choices made in Brussels over several decades.

Most important and damaging, because it is stuck in the weeds of “the grinding technical details of ‘protecting’ the single market”, egged on by Britain’s continuous chewing on the bone of Northern Ireland….

Brussels is continuing to underestimate the UK’s strategic importance and refusing to acknowledge… the political risks of an even mildly successful Britain.

There are three reasons why the EU should worry.

First, Britain will intensify its economic focus on existing strengths: finance, education, security and defence, Fintech, AI and more.

Second, Britain’s macro-economy is healthy. Public debt, economic growth and unemployment are better than most major European economies, except Germany.

Third, London will be able to double down on its strategic partnerships with the US and the other English-speaking economies of the “Anglosphere”. Even if the UK is actually a vassal of the US rather than Washington’s most important partner, any kind of close relationship is still a huge plus for the UK, as the recent AUKUS submarine based defence pact illustrates.

Mr. Drea believes that the UK plans “to keep the Brexit fires burning at home through a constant feed of mutual Anglo-EU antagonism”, aiming ultimately to goad the EU into overreaction.

Fighting talk in Brussels coffee shops of “going hard” on Britain is not the answer. The EU spiked its own guns by not imposing its economic power during the Brexit negotiations. Instead, Europe should take the long view and claim the high ground, resist provocation with a smile and talk the language of strategic partnership.

He concludes.

There’s a much bigger game at play.

Because Britain won’t always be a political disaster. Soon it will be a serious economic threat.

Adapting the psychiatrist’s assessment of Basil Fawlty, there is enough material here for an entire conference. The article is a tissue of meandering musings rather than a web of coherent and consistent arguments.

But before we inspect it more closely, let’s begin by restating some basics about the context for the conduct of the EU — UK relationship.

The EU is not itself a State but a supra-national club of member States, broadly speaking, a rules based organisation. All member States have infringed some rules at one time or another, sometimes lightly, sometimes egregiously, sometimes briefly, sometimes over the longer term. As a broad generalisation, blitheness towards the rules intensifies as one moves from west to east across Europe. And individual member States have carve-outs from some of the rules. For example, 8 member States do not use the Euro.

There have been and will be many more dinner table discussions over whether the UK would still be in the EU if the organisation had responded more lavishly to David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership before the Brexit referendum. But that’s pointlessly hypothetical now. The referendum set the UK on a course to be out of the club altogether rather than in the club with even more “opt out”s than it already had.

It is also past relevant now to point out that the UK happily adheres, at least nominally, to membership of all kinds of other international rules based systems and organisations that constrain its unilateral freedom of action. It was perfectly entitled to choose to leave this one and, through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU rules established a mechanism for it to do so in an orderly way.

Neither is it overly relevant to point out that proponents of Brexit represented to referendum voters that they would be able to leave the club but preserve plenty of a la carte “opt in”s, retain much of the benefits of membership but release itself from the burdens, simply because Britain has the leverage of a “heavyweight” state, able to dictate the terms of its exit.

Brexit was a broader agenda than simply parting company amicably with the EU because the relationship was just not a good “fit” for Britain. It was also driven by the notion that EU membership was an inherently bad thing for any self-respecting country, consigning it to the status of a vassal state. Brexit was a repudiation of and a rebuke to the EU as such. The UK didn’t just leave, it escaped bravely and daringly from a political and economic Colditz.

The UK initiated the divorce. It ascribed the divorce partly to its desire to go dating elsewhere but mainly to its partner’s immiserating behaviour which, it claimed, no reasonable person could tolerate. It expected to emerge from the marriage with sole custody of the children, at least half the assets and a “friends with benefits” relationship with its former partner, conjugal occasions to be initiated entirely at its discretion.

It asserted strongly that this package was entirely reasonable, as much in its partner’s “real” interests as its own, and ascribed its partner’s non-recognition of this fact as due to the partner’s perverse desire to punish it for leaving the family home. Then, having finally signed up to a court settlement (a lot short of what it had hoped), it has been back to the courts trying to renegotiate it, assigning sole blame to its partner for the flaws it perceives in the settlement.

If that were a summary of an actual transition from a human marriage to a divorce, who would advise the other partner limply: “Why don’t you just make more of an effort to just get along with him. After all, he is the father of your children.”? Any serious friend would more likely assure the other partner that they were well rid of him.

As long as the UK continues to see its relationship with the EU as a continuing antagonistic contest to establish which is the stronger party, the relationship can only be a series of arm wrestling zero sum games of wins and losses, gains and concessions, victimhood and aggression.

I don’t doubt for a moment that the EU would prefer a collaborative rather than confrontational relationship with and strategy towards the UK, but it does take two to tango. That is not to apportion blame, just to say that it is very hard to maintain a decent relationship with a party with whom one can’t, for now at least, engage with in good faith — to whom the definition of “good faith” is that you do exactly and only what they want you to do.

Mr. Drea’s advice to the EU is contradictory. On one hand, he chides them for “gaslighting” Brexit and having no strategy towards the UK. On the other, he urges the EU to do exactly what they are already doing — engaging with the UK strategically; taking the long view, claiming the high ground (but calmly rather than aggressively), talking the language of strategic partnership and biding their time. Can they do any more by way of “strategy” towards the UK than keep their own house in order so long as Britain’s strategy is, as Mr. Drea claims, to keep poking the EU in the hope of goading it into overreaction?

When Mr. Drea speaks of Europe missing its chance to impose its economic power on Westminster during the Brexit negotiations, that misdescribes a deliberate strategic and worthwhile objective of maximising the common space between its own and the departing member State’s red lines, minimising the disruptive effects of the rupture for both.

From my limited perspective through EU based media, Brussels coffee shops do not obsess about “every little British provocation”, whether it is the Irish border or French fishermen. Nor are they set on “going hard” on Britain. Instead, Brexit is rightly a wearisome but small part of a broader canvas of everyday administrative life, to be managed, but not be unduly upset about. The British media’s feverish fixation on every “clash” with the EU as a test of strength and will is not reciprocated on mainland Europe. There is a lot of other stuff going on.

Let’s turn to Mr. Drea’s assertion that the UK will soon be a serious economic threat to the EU.

Beyond “soon”, he doesn’t indicate the time horizon within which he expects this to occur. He may be proved right, but his evidence strikes me as thin, a series of concepts rather than facts. Laundry lists of words and acronyms (albeit sexy ones like “Fintech” and “AI”) describing Britain’s cluster of key economic strengths, a pithy summary of its national balance sheet robustness and the word “Anglosphere” do not a Christmas pudding make.

Rather than dive into them all, I will focus just on the Anglosphere. The concept that a shared primary language and interwoven history might be the foundation for significant economic ties between countries has an intuitive plausibility of sorts. But how deep does that mutual commitment run?

Going back to the previous analogy, it is comparable to a person ditching one’s spouse after many years of marriage, then flicking through a rolodex of “old flames” in the hope of calling up, calling around and getting the same big hug as of old. During the UK’s 47 years of primary dalliance with the EU, the UK’s “old friends” haven’t simply been sitting at home lamenting their misfortune and waiting for the UK eventually to come back to them. They have been making their own lives, based on… the convenience of local geography.

Asia-Pacific matters much more to Australia, New Zealand, maybe even Canada than anything a stronger UK connection might do for them now. Globalisation is real, but London is still 10,500 miles from Canberra, Wellington a thousand more. China is only half as far away from those cities, Kolkata not much further away. Vancouver is as close to Yokahama as it is to London. There is something contorted about talking up the vista of the relationship with the other side of the globe or even the Atlantic ocean while dismissing the relationship with the other side of the English channel. Geography surely matters at least as much as English.

The US “special relationship” remains bright in the eyes of the UK. But does it in the US? Is it just a term mentioned from time to time by US leaders as a form of convenient flattery (to which they know the hearer is especially susceptible) rather than a signal of genuine commitment?

Mr. Drea mentioned the AUKUS submarines deal as proof of its reality and value. He didn’t mention the ignominious and expensive UK involvement in the second Iraq war and, more recently and acutely, the embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the US dictated and Britain meekly followed. As Theresa May taunted the Prime Minister when the Taliban took the Afghan capital in August: “Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” And while the much mooted trade deal might be born — some day, there is no energy behind it in Washington right now.

Mr. Drea may be right that the UK would be happy to be a vassal of the US. But doesn’t that make all the more curious its vehemence about the notion of being a vassal of the EU (if such were true)? Sovereignty is invoked as a vehicle of convenience to disdain the EU rather than a principle of conduct to disdain everyone.

There are two fundamental points where Mr. Drea skates on thin ice.

The first is his presumption that geopolitical strategy is pursued either from within the EU or outside of it, but not both. How did EU membership strangle the development of Britain’s powerhouse economic sectors, constrain its national economic balance sheet or interfere with its relationship with the US? He doesn’t tell us, other than perhaps an implied assumption that a country has only so much strategic bandwidth and EU membership absorbed a lot of it.

It’s not as if EU member States are restricted to dealing and trading with each other. Rather, Britain’s membership of the EU stood alongside and enhanced the global “weight” of Britain’s simultaneous strong bilateral relationship with the US, its membership of the UN Security Council, the G7 and G20 and the Commonwealth, just as its departure from the EU has reduced that weight.

The second is his presumption that, if Britain does prosper, this must be at the expense of the EU — as if there is only a finite “pot” of economic and political prosperity available for Europe. It is at least as likely that the economic interaction with an invigorated Britain would be to the EU’s benefit as well as the UK, even within the limitations of the Brexit trade agreement.

But even if the UK does indeed “prosper mightily”, as Mr. Johnson puts it, is Brexit’s contribution to its future a motor propelling the journey or a millstone around its national neck? That assessment may adjust over time but, at the moment, it’s easier to see a case for the latter than the former. The sense coming out of London these days is one of enthusiasm dwindling, disappointment dawning, but also that the course is grimly set. The referendum that made Brexit close to inevitable makes reconsideration close to impossible.

By the end of 1943, it was already a racing certainty that Germany would have to surrender in the second world war, but they fought on until May 1945, incurring the loss of countless lives and the needless “wipe out” of their economy in the process. In part, it was because any murmur of dissent would be dealt with quickly and brutally by the “authorities”, but also because, for many ordinary people, the mistake of their at least tacit endorsement of Nazism was so great that it was harder to confront it than to endure its consequences.

Too many ordinary people (and especially Tory voters) are invested in the emotional prospectus that Brexit would bring only milk and honey for any of its public advocates to risk putting their heads above the parapet to suggest a reassessment. For the foreseeable future, Brexiteers will continue to insist that their project is well dressed, not even skimpily clad, never mind naked.




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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.