Brexit negotiations: the Davis poker face

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Brexit negotiations: the Davis poker face

Commenting on the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Peter Divey presents a more bullish perspective of the British side. Poker is often a game of bluff, he says: you can win without the best hand.

Michel Barnier is not as shrill as Juncker but he does rather well with his own line of piqued dramatis. Things have been “impossible” more than once and items are regularly conditioned with an insistent “will” or “must” as if this declaration in of itself should be sufficient to make it so. It is what the EU have come to expect. They demand, you obey. I thought I knew how the press conference would go, Barnier would engage in sombre grumbling about lack of progress and clarity before exploring once again the sadness of losing old friends over such a foolish misunderstanding. David Davis would be more upbeat trying to emphasise the positive. I wasn’t fully attendant, that is the way when you know what’s coming…so…

I was up off the sofa in a start, walking towards the TV, fumbling for the remote to raise the volume, head turned so that I might better hear… yes, Davis had said it…”Michel is rather angry”… I couldn’t have been more thrilled!  The line put out by The European press and unfortunately further propagandised by too many over here…that Britain was unprepared, clueless, sure to be crushed and humiliated by the mighty, efficient EU, was it dissolving? It was going to be a shellacking went the story, no resemblance to a negotiation at all. Worst of all Britain would be spineless, eager to grasp whatever crumbs were offered up in an effort to appease. There were personal attacks upon Davis…incompetent, out of his depth, poorly briefed and feckless. I never believed this for one minute and the more strident the tone the more certain I was that the EU knew it wasn’t so. It was a brilliant narrative, Davis felt sufficiently pressured to sit with pen and pad on show such was the febrile over-analysis. This was fantastically and fabulously turned around when Davis turned up with 92 advisers, outnumbering the EU mandarins four to one… everyone saw what it was then, games, just silly games, and both sides can play… I hope they all wore bowler hats, swung umbrellas and marched about with their best silly Monty Python walk a la John Cleese, what a fantastic sight that would have been!

The admission by Davis that Barnier was increasingly frustrated is timely and clever. Britain has fortitude and resolve, we are not just rolling over. Barnier, as a barb, had told Davis that the clock was ticking… you are running out of time, feel the pressure… Davis came back a week or so later, cool as a cucumber… the clock is ticking, it is you who are running out of time. We will leave with no deal if needs be… and take our money with us. This strategy will only work however if the EU believes that Britain will walk away over a bad deal. Poker is often a game of bluff… you can win without the best hand. Barnier is very constrained by the EU Commision. Supposedly he has asked for more flexibility but has been told to adhere strictly to his remit… the redlines, the structured approach to talks… “sufficient progress” before the important trade talks can begin. Who thinks that is not about the money? Britain is not wilting as expected, and Barnier now knows that Britain is not Greece.

Poor little Greece, treated so appallingly by the EU. Crushed and humiliated to order. Democracy trampled. Juncker infamously said: “where treaties are concerned there is no democracy”. Article 50 is clear, come March 30, 2019 all political and legal structures cease to apply. Britain has no obligations to the EU post-Brexit. None. Any working arrangements cannot be compelled, only negotiated. When David Davis says that Britain will pay what is legally due concerning the Brexit bill the EU is infuriated because strictly speaking this can be nothing if Britain so chooses. The EU has mistakenly conflated Britain with Greece and it is showing. It is yet early in the process. There will be plenty more bluff and bluster. The unity of the commission and the 27 over Brexit seems solid, but I think, rather like a swimming duck, that serene outward appearance belies frantic activity beneath. The referendum result will have come as a great shock to the republic of Ireland; and their choices have been odd.

Leo Varadkar and the Irish government of course strongly supported the EU, but to do so without any nuance was hasty. You can imagine the conversation in the days following the referendum result… Juncker, patting the Taoiseach on the head… “Leo leave this to us… Brexit won’t happen, it’s only another referendum…we’ll sort it”. The Irish sat back, didn’t work any back channels with the UK and trusted the EU to negotiate on their behalf. Oops. Now the Irish are sniping at the Brits from the side lines, where they have always been having given over responsibility to their masters… but who are they really shouting at? The EU just as much as the UK… ‘please hear us!’ ‘What about our particular needs?’ And so it will be to a lesser or greater extent with each of the 27 sovereign nations. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Any one of the 27 can de-rail an agreement that Davis and the Commission cook up. Then the MEP’s have to pass it…a Ministry of silly walks indeed…

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  • Peter Divey
    Peter Divey
    Peter Divey's dormant interest in British and American politics has been reawakened by last year's Brexit referendum result and Trump's ascendency to the White House. In his spare time he enjoys playing chess and has a growing collection of vintage wrist watches.
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