…“However, let me underline that what matters more than the format of the talks is progress on substance”…
This line from Michel Barnier’s letter of 10 July 2020 to the MP and chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, Mark Francois, picks at a thread that has stretched throughout the Brexit process – from the EU referendum campaign in 2016, until now. The Brexiters now running this country, depend entirely upon talking about anything but the substance of what the outcome of their campaign means for the UK. From the start, it has been a project built on slogans intended to hide a multitude of consequences.
What has come as such a surprise to many on both side of the Channel is that there wasn’t a smooth British operation ready and willing to come up with pragmatic solutions to the complex political problems that were a necessary outcome of the referendum result. Instead it is the EU that has talked about pragmatism and creativity in finding solutions – and the UK that has refused to face up to the complexities, and has continued to talk of the ‘will of the people’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’.
The EU doesn’t ‘believe in’ Brexit – and senior EU figures still talk of their regret at the UK’s decision to leave, and openly admit that it is a ‘lose-lose’ scenario. But they have nonetheless rolled up their sleeves and got on with dealing with it.
The EU has done the boring, unsexy, but very practical detail: it drew up the initial drafts of what would become the near 600 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement. It is also a fact that doing this boring detail also gives the EU a large advantage: anyone who has been involved in negotiations knows that ‘holding the pen’ gives you an advantageous level of control.
Successive UK governments since the Referendum have let the EU take this advantage: be it May or Johnson, they have not wanted to be the authors of a Brexit deal. As was always the case with Brexit: ‘to choose is to lose’. When the UK left the EU at the beginning of this year the Johnson government recognised the advantage of drafting the text, saying it wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the May government and would present detailed proposals. But as we are all too aware, diligence and detail are not a hallmark of the Johnson government – nor is following through on promises. Thus, once again the EU has been drafting the text.
This contrast between the behaviour and action of the EU and the UK goes much deeper than the EU being better-prepared, able and willing to do its homework. It goes to the core principles of trust, transparency and responsibility.
Trust is the most concerning of this trio of characteristics.
The idea that the UK would not be a trustworthy partner is not something many British citizens would ever have thought possible. But the evidence that this is indeed so, has mounted alarmingly.
Theresa May was guilty of this – agreeing one thing in Brussels then claiming the opposite in the UK, with no regard to the fact that everyone in Brussels can and does read the British press.
But Johnson has doubled-down on the trust issue.
The most significant demonstration of this is over the future of Northern Ireland. Johnson announced to great fanfare in October 2019 that he had reopened the Withdrawal Agreement, and had renegotiated it – removing the Northern Irish ‘backstop’ the ERG had so derided. The downside of this change to the binding international treaty is that there will now be checks in the Irish Sea.
Johnson subsequently repeatedly and blatantly denied the reality of what he had signed, saying there would be no checks. This has caused genuine consternation on the EU side. This is in part because of the dishonesty – although, as I’ve said, they had already seen that with the May government – but also because, practically, Northern Ireland will now be an external border for the EU in less than six months’ time, and they need to know it will be secure.
Transparency has been another divide between the UK and the EU’s handling of these negotiations.
To some extent the EU has made a virtue of a necessity: Michel Barnier and his team were determined to keep the EU institutions and the member-state capitals involved in his work. This meant there would constantly be accidental and deliberate leaks. To avoid this uncontrolled flow of information, details of the EU positions were published and regularly updated. A gruelling flow of consultations and meetings have been an incessant feature of their work – meeting with the European Parliament at least monthly, visiting each member-state capital at least four times, and an ‘open door’ policy to stakeholders.
In contrast, when the UK finally came up with some proposals in recent months they refused even to allow Barnier’s team to take them out of the room or to share them with member-state representatives: the member states were irritated with the UK, but they had trust in the EU’s representative. At the beginning of this process it had been anticipated that the EU would splinter in the face of a formidable British machine – in the end the reverse has been true, and transparency has been one of the reasons for this.
Finally we come to responsibility – taking responsibility for delivery.
Again there is a stark contrast. The EU and the individual Member States have been doing a lot of preparations – there have been over 100 sector-specific preparedness notices from the EU: one country – the Netherlands – has already employed an additional 750 customs officers in advance of the economic Brexit at the end of this year. In contrast the British government is currently talking about employing 500 more border staff, and businesses in Northern Ireland and the UK more generally, are desperate for information on what they will actually have to deal with at the end of this year.
Another phrase that stood out for me recently was a quote from the French philosopher Simone Weil, who wrote: “If we grasp one of these words, all swollen with blood and tears, and squeeze it, we find it is empty.” When I read that I thought of those three-word slogans – their lack of substance is what makes them so politically dangerous, but also so worthless in delivering a detailed outcome that works in the national interest. The EU’s attention to substance and detail – instead of dealing in rhetoric – is what makes it a formidable actor on the world stage.
It is a lesson to which the UK would do well to pay attention.
Clare Moody was Member of the European Parliament for South West England in 2014-2019