Downing Street’s scuppering its own negotiating position

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Downing Street’s scuppering its own negotiating position

By failing to exalt the virtues of Brexit, the Government is inadvertently helping to perpetuate the myth that the Brexit movement is anti-European, and in so doing undermining its negotiating position, says Bruce Newsome.  

For a British government whose policy is to leave the EU – led by a Prime Minister who promised that “Brexit means Brexit”, it says little about the virtues of leaving. Instead, it makes a virtue of honouring the referendum result – against which the Prime Minister and most of her Cabinet appointees campaigned, of apologising for the policy imposed on it by the people, of talking about the EU’s virtues more than its own.

Consequently, it is struggling to articulate its objectives, giving in to EU demands without achieving concessions, and surrendering to prejudicial caricatures that make negotiations ever more difficult.

The Cabinet did not meet to discuss its Brexit objectives until last week (18 December 2017) – that’s 18 months since the referendum. Like a Churchillian War Cabinet, it met for only 45 minutes, most of which was taken up with the Prime Minister’s agenda – which was under-specified, misguided, and indecisive. Reportedly, Theresa May said that Britain should continue to call for a “bespoke and ambitious” trade deal, even though the EU has repeatedly refused any special arrangement for Britain and said that it wants Britain to specify its wants. One anonymous Cabinet member told a journalist that “the position of the prime minister was still unclear.”

Journalists tend to tweet about the government’s press releases, without reading policy. I do read policy, and it does not give me confidence. Theresa May claims that her speech in Florence in September was a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations, but she talked more about the benefits of remaining than leaving, and her objectives remained platitudinous – full of positive buzzwords (such as “co-operation) without practical specification.

The semantic frame “sovereign” appeared only three times: she contradictorily looked forward to a sovereign Britain while she praised the “profound pooling of sovereignty that is a crucial feature of the European Union [and] permits unprecedentedly deep cooperation, which brings benefits.”

She “want[ed] the UK courts to be able to take into account the judgments of the European Court of Justice”. She guaranteed the rights of EU citizens in Britain but did not talk about the rights of Britons in the EU.

The semantic frame “immigration” appears once, when May warned that “it will take time to put in place the new immigration system”; “mass migration” appears once as a “shared” challenge; and the “migration crisis” appears once as a reason for “a far reaching partnership on how we protect Europe together”.

She made no references to the tremendous cash savings to be made from giving up membership, but repeatedly spoke of her desire to maintain the economic benefits.

She promised “to re-take control of the UK’s borders” but did not want any barriers to trade and confirmed “that we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border” with Ireland.

She promised “a new relationship on security” but wanted to “draw on the legal models the EU has previously used to structure co-operation with external partners” in defence, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and counter-trafficking.

The government isn’t composed of elected representatives alone – most of its personnel are public servants, who should be apolitical, professional, long-termist, well-read, and confidence-inspiring, right? Well, those experts should be found in the Department for Exiting the European Union, which says that it is “responsible for overseeing negotiations to leave the EU and establishing the future relationship between the UK and EU.” It could have said that it is responsible for restoring all sorts of things, or the most advantageous situation for Britain – but no such luck.

It aims for five objectives:

1. “a deep and special relationship” (a paraphrase of romantic fiction, not any rigorous work on international relations);

2. to “work with” other institutions (that’s not an objective, it’s routine);

3. to “lead and coordinate cross-government work to seize the opportunities and ensure a smooth process of exit, including the required domestic legislation, on the best possible terms” (that’s at least three objectives, conflated here as the middle item, where they are least likely to be remembered);

4. to “exercise our rights and meet our obligations as a member of the EU until we exit” (yet the government has surrendered British rights while promising to extend obligations);

5. to “attract and develop great people and organise ourselves flexibly to deliver our objectives efficiently and effectively” (oh dear! from romantic fiction to management jargon).

According to its own website, this department employs at least 17 persons in its “senior management team,” and nearly 600 subordinate civil servants (not counting external consultants), but they write policy like they are over-selling a corporate merger to sceptical shareholders.

The trouble with a government of fake Brexiteers and gagged Brexiteers who don’t talk about the virtues of Brexit is that the discourse is left to barmy Brexit-bashers.

Here’s an exemplar from the same week: even the Christmas edition of the Radio Times can work in a barmy reference to Brexit, with an article on the origins of Christmas traditions. This was written by one of those over-invited commentators who dominate our discourse on international politics just because they work in the creative arts. Indeed, she (Daisy Goodwin) is introduced as the “creator” of the fictional drama “Victoria,” in which capacity she has previously stated that Queen Victoria would have opposed Brexit, on the grounds that Victoria wanted to dominate Europe – I cannot think of a more spurious claim. So how does she work a stab at Brexit into her article on Christmas? Her hook is that “our festive traditions are as European as they come” but “don’t tell Nigel Farage”. Yes, she means the same Farage who married a German, celebrates Christmas, campaigned to restore Europe’s traditions against the EU’s McDonaldization, and has repeatedly articulated that he is anti-EU but not anti-European.

This case of barmy Brexit-bashing (stay tuned: it will be the first in a series on these pages) illustrates a serious issue: the myth that Brexiteers are anti-European doesn’t help the government negotiate with an EU that wants to portray the British as unreasoned bigots, and the government doesn’t help to avoid this caricature until it starts asserting the virtues of its own policy.

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    Bruce Newsome
    Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California Berkeley
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