The first calling point of the UK's negotiator immediately after #Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal
— David Davis (@DavidDavisMP) May 26, 2016
Medieval artists were very fond of the myth of St Sebastian’s martyrdom. Perhaps it was the uplifting story of a holy man miraculously surviving apparently certain death, perhaps it was the opportunity for the artist to spend hours at a time with a handsome naked young man in front of him. Either way, the image of a muscular young man shot full of arrows was one that the Old Masters regularly returned to.
In the same spirit of martyrdom, I return to the question of Britain’s negotiations with the EU. For whenever I have produced a thread header that points out a problem of Brexit, I have found myself assailed by pricks. When I wrote, 18 months ago before the referendum, about the slow and bureaucratic way in which the EU approaches trade negotiations with supporting data on the time that the EU takes to agree and implement such treaties, I received one of the most hostile receptions ever. The objections fell into the following categories:
- That can’t be right (usually expressed more forthrightly than that)
- We’re Britain and therefore different
- Britain is in the single market already so it’s all going to be plain sailing, there’s nothing much to agree
- The German manufacturers will insist that access is maintained seamlessly to the British market; Britain is far too valuable an export market for the EU (a view espoused in May 2016 by David Davis when he tweeted: “The EU cannot afford the threat being levelled at Britain, so called “WTO terms”, as that would involve tariffs on their exports”)
- The EU will give this top priority
18 months on, Leavers appear to be settling on an entirely different position. Airstrip One, it seems, has always been unable to reach a deal with Eurasia. The EU’s love of procedure and bureaucracy, we are told, make reaching a deal with them impossible, as we should always have known. Crossly, they tell Remainers that the failure to reach speedy agreement cannot be laid at the doors of Leavers.
If only the EU would handle negotiations in the manner that Leavers thought was appropriate, all would be well. But for some reason the EU obdurately refuses to arrange everything for the convenience of Britain. Inexplicable. But of course, Leavers sagely tell Remainers, this was only to be expected.
Remainers will have a range of emotions between outrage and wry amusement at the way in which Leavers have retrofitted their arguments to back up their world view. But Remainers are also prone to the same trait. Before the referendum, many were confidently predicting a crunching recession should Leave win. So far, that hasn’t materialised in the way they expected. Growth has been sluggish recently but the nation is not yet suffering in the way that had been suggested. The usual response, however, from Remainers is to declare that it is merely purgatory postponed.
In both cases, the whole thought process is seriously flawed. Let’s poke fun at the Remainers first this time. With the non-appearance of a ferocious recession in the wake of the referendum outcome, their first thought should have been to acknowledge that the economic consequences were not what they had anticipated. This should have led them to the thought that they had completely misread the economic effect of that. This should have led on to the further thought that they needed to identify the mistakes in their thinking on Brexit and more fundamentally on how economies work. Now once that has been done, it is possible that the correct conclusion is indeed that a Brexit bust is still lurking, but the errors need to be tracked down, explained and analysed first. That has conspicuously not happened.
For we must deal with the facts as they are, not as we wish them to be. Similarly, those Leavers who completely misread the dynamics of exit negotiations need to start from the realisation that they completely misunderstood how the EU worked. The correct response to that is to look again from scratch at the nature of the EU and spot the error. The standard Leaver take on the EU is that it is a leviathan that needs slaying. (The error in that line of thinking is that the EU is not a single beast but a multipolar organisation with competing and conflicting aims.)
This has real world consequences. If Leavers recognise that the EU operates according to its own interests slowly and methodically by procedure and internal compromise – and recognises that those can be virtues as well as vices – there remains the possibility that a workable deal can be reached. If Leavers persist in treating the EU as the bastard child of Hitler and the Whore of Babylon and insisting that the government negotiates accordingly, the outcome will inevitably be grim.
There is nothing wrong with having guiding principles. It’s fine to think that the freedom to exercise Britain’s sovereignty in a completely unfettered way outweighs any privations that might be coming its way by doing so. It’s fine to think that Britain is better sharing its sovereignty with other European states, that unity is strength.
What is not fine is then to seek to reverse engineer arguments to cram inconvenient facts into your world view and then to demonstrate how following your principles would inevitably result in a superior outcome. Principles aren’t worth much unless they sometimes cost you something and sometimes we all get things wrong. When we do, it’s time to do some proper rethinking. It’s time for both Leavers and Remainers to start being more intellectually honest.