“Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) sang Ella. “That’s what gets results.” A lesson the EU and the British government might usefully tattoo on their respective foreheads as they embark on post-Article 50 negotiations. Or try to. Nine months on from the referendum and two months since Article 50 was formally triggered, both the EU and Britain are still shouting at each other in a way familiar to divorce lawyers wearily trying to inject realism into their clients’ heads.
However tough negotiations are, tone matters, surprisingly often as much as the substance. Even if you have right or the law or a majority on your side, a touch of humility, an acceptance that the other side is entitled to feel whatever it is they are feeling, that they have a point – even if you do not agree with it – can help defuse a heated situation. A generosity of spirit can help both parties feel that the results, even if tough, were fairly arrived at. European history is full of examples of the disastrous consequences that can occur when the victors of a conflict or the strong are overcome by hubris.
So two examples of how both Britain and the EU are currently getting it wrong.
This is not just a negotiation.
Britain never wholeheartedly signed up to the European project, its approach being primarily transactional and commercial. Fair enough then for it to feel that the commercial advantages of being in the EU were outweighed by the political disadvantages and vote accordingly. But it should not then be surprised that the EU might also seek to take a transactional and commercial approach to Britain’s exit. And in its understandable desire to seek a new trading relationship with the EU, Britain has failed to understand that its rejection of the EU hurt. Brexit is not simply a staging post on the way to a new and different trading agreement but a blow to the EU’s pride and amour propre. For the first time, a member state rejected the EU in toto, a rejection felt even more acutely, given that Britain had been a member, arguably owed at least some of its success in recent years to that membership and already benefited from a series of opt-outs.
What more did the ungrateful Brits want? And added to this was what appeared to be an arrogant assumption that Britain was nonetheless sufficiently important (a £290 billion market as David Davis repeatedly says) that the EU would quickly have to reach an agreement on terms favourable to Britain. Undoubtedly, it makes commercial and political sense to come to an agreement on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. But if Britain can act on its feelings about the EU, so too can the EU react – and in its own way. How it does so is not in our control. Telling them that they should behave rationally when, to them, we have taken an unbelievably irrational step shows a tin ear for the dynamics of a break-up.
It’s not me, it’s you.
Much of the criticism levelled at the EU in recent days has been of what appear to be unreasonable demands for an enormous exit payment and a refusal to enter into trade talks, at least until payment has been agreed. The EU seems to be doing what it accuses Britain of wanting to do – cherry-picking – though in truth this is something which the EU has always done with its own rules. But the more fundamental criticism is that the EU refuses to accept (in public at least) that it could possibly be in any way at fault when its second largest contributor, a major European country, chooses to leave after decades of experience as a member. Its reaction seems predicated on an assumption that it is simply impermissible, illegitimate even, for a country to take a different view of its own best interests, that it is behaving like a errant child which must be punished and that, therefore, in Juncker’s reported words: “Brexit cannot be a success.”
It would have been perfectly possible for Mr Juncker to have said that he thought that Britain had made the wrong discussion in deciding to leave but that, nonetheless, he understood that this was Britain’s democratic right, that he felt sure that Britain understood that a future relationship would be different to membership (and in the EU’s view) worse (though Britain might take a different view from its perspective), that Britain was an important country in Europe with which the EU wanted to have a friendly and constructive relationship and that he wished it well. But no. This has not been said. Why?
Political integration and freedom of movement are integral to the EU. So, logically, from the EU’s perspective, their loss would put Britain in a worse position (even if Britain might think otherwise). The EU’s apparent insistence that Britain must lose more than these risks giving the impression that the EU itself seems to think that these are not so much advantages but burdens to be endured, that it does not have much confidence that the central tenets of the projet are something really shared by EU populations (or, in some cases, leaders, Viktor Orban being a case in point).
A more self-critical EU would be more willing to ask itself whether it might have done something over the last 43 years of Britain’s membership which led to last June’s result, whether it was in any way at fault and whether it might be possible that it has anything to learn. A more self-confident EU would be less fearful of what departure by a recalcitrant member might mean, would be more willing to agree fair exit terms, confident in its mission and of public support for it. An EU that genuinely understood European culture and history would instinctively understand that the perspectives of London and Lublin are likely to be very different, that what may be right for one is not right for the other and would seek to accommodate such views rather than to quash them.
It is fine for a German politician to tweet that “The British government must abandon myth that all British will be better off post-Brexit.” More fruitful might be to abandon the myth that all British were better off before Brexit and, indeed, that all Europeans are better off as a result of the EU’s decisions in recent years.
And that is the real danger of the EU’s current position: not its effect on negotiations with Britain but that it ignores the very real problems within the EU, the dissatisfaction which has been building up, how this might manifest itself and what this could lead to. Rather than congratulate itself (or sigh with relief) that Macron will (likely) win the French Presidency it should be asking itself how it is that someone like Marine Le Pen seems set to get a vote as high as 40% in a founding member. Or it could look at humiliated Greece or no-growth Italy or Hungary, putting up borders and containers to house unwanted migrants. Intelligent self-reflection has never been the EU’s strong point. Nor Britain’s, despite its interminable EU-related navel-gazing over recent years. Time for both to say less in public and think more.