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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

Is Brexit Lost at Sea?

30 Aug 2017 - 10:52

It sounds trite but it has to be said again and again: negotiations over Brexit were never going to be easy. I’m still amazed at how – over a year since the vote – many in Britain and elsewhere still view Brexit as an event or a single time-limited negotiation between a small team of British and EU negotiating teams. Some in Britain especially remain particularly deluded, although the rest of the EU should be weary of pointing fingers. 

What is in reality a series of time-limited and open-ended multi-level negotiations and debates in which various parties – in both formal and informal arenas – fight out what Brexit means for them and their multiple interests and ideas, was never going to be easy to follow let alone manage. Even academics have been kept busy by the latest press releases or gossip, leaving them often struggling to step back to see the bigger picture of Brexit.

A flurry of activity from the UK Government should have kept us all busy over the summer. A series of position papers put some muscle and flesh on the bones of the ideas behind Brexit that Theresa May first showed the world earlier this year. That this body of Brexit ideas was meant more for display in Britain than elsewhere in the EU showed how far we all still have to go.

The problem is that British decision makers remain uncertain of their strategy. Unless things change they will end up being studied as a classic example of a failure to grasp a basic lesson from Sun Tzu’s Art of War:

The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

To be fair, British decision makers were hamstrung from the start by a government that had no plan for the outcome of a Leave vote, a governing Conservative party that was deeply divided, and a series of victorious Leave campaigns led by people who couldn’t stand one another and who put forward conflicting ideas, hopes and offered little if any analysis of how the rest of the EU or world would react to a leave vote or their plans to achieve what they wanted out of it. But Theresa May has compounded things with her rush to trigger Article 50, calling a general election that spectacularly backfired and by still offering few credible ideas as to what end – what she wants Britain to be – that she seeks from her Brexit strategy.

Should we be surprised then that the past few weeks have been filled with frustrations in Britain and the rest of the EU at the lack of progress in the formal UK-EU Brexit negotiations? Somewhat predictably the EU’s demands have led to it being accused of blackmail, the common complaint against a stronger party in a negotiation. The EU meanwhile fired off the rather predictable post-imperial accusation that Britain is gripped by nostalgia.

The EU cannot hold its head high, something I’ll cover another week. Suffice here to say that in dealing with Brexit the rest of the EU has had to face, or in many ways put off or try to ignore, some unpalatable truths about itself. Myopic thinking has been on display on all sides.

But it is Britain where the Brexit learning curve has been and remains steepest. British myopia was brilliantly captured in the recently published polemic ‘Guilty Men: Brexit Edition’ by Cato the Younger, a pseudonym. Taking up the pen of his great grandfather whose 1940 book ‘Guilty Men’ ruined the reputations of 15 men responsible for appeasement of Hitler, the great grandson sets out on a similar quest to identify for political lynching the 15 men (or 13 men and 2 women) responsible for the mess of Brexit.

That the guilty Britons include the likes of David Cameron, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn – and Angela Merkel is one of the three guilty Europeans listed – should leave little doubt as to how bleak the outlook is for anyone hoping Brexit can either be reversed or handled in a way that is a positive sum game. Too many of those involved have been guilty of the five sins of deceit, distortion, personal gain, failures of leadership, or gloating, hubris and frivolity.

With such poor leadership on offer Brexit looks set to drift, possibly towards the rocks or a storm or perhaps into the dead calm of a transition arrangement negotiated at the eleventh hour that leaves Britain in what some see as an EU purgatory of neither in or out.



Tim Oliver
Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University London