Readers of this blog can hardly fail to be aware that I regard Brexit as a national disaster. Even so, it is extraordinary that the government seem to take every opportunity to make things worse than they need to be. That applies most obviously to the big decisions such as insisting Brexit must mean hard Brexit including the ECJ red line, triggering Article 50 without proper preparation, and then wasting months with an election. But having made those decisions the government then, in smaller matters, continually makes foolish mistakes. With the holiday season in progress there have only been such small matters on display this week, but they are indicative of the wider mess the government are creating.
Item one. On Thursday the Prime Minister’s spokesman re-iterated
that the Brexit timetable remains that stated by the PM in her Lancaster House speech. That is, that she envisages both exit and future trade terms to be agreed within the two year period ending in March 2019. But every serious person knows that this is impossible, and even most cabinet ministers have acknowledged it. For that matter, Theresa May herself appears to know it
. So what conceivable purpose is served by pretending otherwise? Any halfway competent leader would be preparing both the general public and politicians – and especially those supportive of Brexit – for the fact that it is going to take longer, probably much longer, than this.
We are no longer in the Referendum campaign when Leave could make mendacious claims about how quick and easy the exit negotiations would be, even lying that they would be completed before triggering Article 50
(something legally impossible). Instead, for better or for worse, we are now in what is supposedly the governmental implementation of Brexit, and that can’t be done on the basis of fantasies. It is not as if May will be able to avoid facing up to the true timescale eventually so she would surely be politically wiser to do so sooner rather than later.
Item two. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s office announced a ‘charm offensive’
in which diplomats and officials will explain Britain’s Brexit strategy to, especially, the EU-27 countries. It hardly needs saying that this puts the rickety cart well ahead of a horse that should in kindness be sent to the glue factory. Britain scarcely has a Brexit strategy, as it is still under dispute within the cabinet
. We have failed, unlike the EU, to produce detailed position papers for the negotiations we initiated, although these are apparently to be unveiled
in September. The White Paper is “riddled with contradictions”, as this excellent article from Polly Ruth Polak explains
in some detail, and on key issues such as the Irish border no meaningful proposals have been made at all, as Irish leader Leo Varadkar recently lamented
But this is not the main deficiency with the supposed charm offensive. Rather, it reveals the continuing inability of the government to understand what the EU have repeatedly made clear
which is that Brexit it not going to be a matter of bi-lateral discussions between the UK and each member state. The EU-27 will negotiate as a bloc. And whilst it might be said that the ‘charm offensive’ is an exercise in communication rather than an attempt at negotiation that is a line so thin as to be meaningless: if the aim is not to have an impact upon the negotiations in some way then it has no point anyway. In fact, it is an approach which was already tried in the ‘divide and rule’ pre-Article 50 period in an attempt to pre-empt the negotiations which the EU rightly said could not occur before the triggering letter. It did not succeed then and it will not succeed now: it is completely unrealistic to expect otherwise.
Item three. Also on Wednesday, Brexit Secretary David Davis addressed
one of the many thorny issues in the exit negotiations, namely that of citizens’ rights. But he did so in the most bizarre manner, saying that the terms the EU is offering to British nationals living in EU-27 countries are unfair because they do not give those nationals freedom of movement rights across the EU-27, just residence rights in that country where they reside. The unfairness, he claimed, was that this did not meet the EU principle of reciprocity because EU-27 citizens residing in the UK would continue to have freedom of movement rights across the EU-27.
This seems almost wilfully to introduce an obvious misunderstanding into proceedings which are already complex. Since the UK is choosing to leave the EU (and moreover the single market) in part in order to exit freedom of movement rules it follows that British nationals will lose their freedom of movement rights. That is true for all British nationals whether resident in the UK or in an EU-27 country. However, no EU-27 country is leaving the EU and therefore no EU-27 citizen loses freedom of movement rights within the EU-27. Reciprocity does not and could not mean that British people in an EU-27 country have the same freedom of movement rights as citizens of EU-27 countries in the UK because the British loss of those rights is entailed by leaving the EU. The issue is the residency rights of the two groups.
If the argument is that British people should enjoy freedom of movement rights in the EU-27 because EU-27 people do then that is an argument for staying in the EU, or at least the single market. It seems that Davis has not grasped that, to coin a phrase, Brexit means Brexit. Or, alternatively, that he still thinks that ‘having our cake and eating it’ is possible, in the sense that, somehow, British people could continue to have freedom of movement rights across the EU-27 whereas EU-27 people would not have freedom of movement rights to Britain. That sentiment, in fact, was often expressed by Brexiters prior to the Referendum so it is not inconceivable that Davis shares it.
The thread that links these three announcements is that they illustrate and compound the way that the Brexit government is completely unrealistic and confused about the meaning of the Brexit they are enacting and the processes, both political and legal, through which it must be enacted. It is this which feeds the widespread view of Britain’s approach to Brexit being in chaos
, with some in the EU apparently wondering if this is in fact a cunning negotiating plan
rather than genuine chaos. But as the ever-acute David Allen Green has pointed out in his recent FT blog
, “the government looks as if it is in disarray because it is in disarray”, making repeated “unforced errors” in its handling of Brexit.
But perhaps unforced errors is not quite the right term. Errors they certainly are, but they are driven by the underlying force of the Brexit ultras. First, of course, because they set us on this crazy path without any credible plan and on the basis of breath taking lies. But, second, because they continue to urge us to even greater follies – recent examples including Patrick Minford’s call for an exit with no deal
at all, John Longworth’s call to walk away
if there is no deal by early 2018 and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s denial
that there is any payment needed to settle accounts. Such reckless, delusional, irresponsibility is what drives us ever closer to the edge of a very steep cliff.