For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Simon Usherwood, from the Open University, in England.
Today you are wondering why the British government seems to find it so difficult to sort out its different problems related to the Brexit decision.
Yes, it’s actually a question I get asked regularly whenever I leave the United Kingdom.
You’ll remember that this has been the situation ever since the referendum five years ago.
From the delays in making the official notification to leave the EU, to the arguments about negotiating first the Withdrawal Agreement and then the Trade & Cooperation Agreement, to the on-going question marks about whether any of this is going to last, the impression has been one of chaos and maybe some vindictiveness.
However, I’d argue that all of this boils down to a much more mundane problem: the UK hasn’t decided what Brexit is for.
But, Simon, there has been a referendum. And a lot of time to make up their mind about what kind of Brexit they wanted!
Sure, during the referendum – and since – there were lots of reasons thrown around for why the UK would be better off out of the EU. But remember that the vote was just that: a vote. There was no obligation to make good on any promises, nor any pre-agreed plan that could be worked to.
Instead, campaigners on both sides offered lots of different arguments to attract lots of different people to vote for them. It’s a bit like those adverts you see on the internet: this one simple trick will help you lose 60 pounds in a few weeks.
And just like those adverts, it was more marketing than substance.
Since the referendum, various people have tried to make the result a vindication of their personal views and priorities. The problem has been that no-one was able impose their views successfully, so there are still very basic disagreements about what it all means.
In other words: the referendum was a decision without a rationale behind it.
And this matters because it’s essentially impossible to negotiate if you don’t know what you want.
So, that explains why the different negotiations often seem so unprepared and erratic?
Sometimes the UK government simply seems to want to do things differently from the EU – on regulation, or trade – just to prove that it can exercise some of that control that it took back.
Other times it wants to remain close to EU rules in order to reduce border controls and checks: the whole Northern Ireland Protocol is based on this, to help keep the Good Friday Agreement as a framework for peace and stability on the island of Ireland.
But most of the time the government mainly offers strong words, but no substance.
A repeated criticism during the negotiations since 2017 was that the UK was very good at saying what it didn’t like, but very bad at offering constructive alternatives. One of the reasons so much of the text of the two treaties is EU language is that the UK often didn’t propose any alternatives.
And this holds true to today.
The problems over fisheries access for French boats, or over Northern Ireland, or any of the many other issues between the UK and EU can be understood as the British side still not having a clear end-point that they’re working towards.
As a result, much of what happens is about keeping things up in the air, to avoid letting them settle down and become routine. If you think you might want to change things again in the near future, then you don’t want to get stuck in a new habit that will be hard to shake off.
The unfortunate consequence is that the UK is likely to continue being a very difficult partner – on issues big and small – for the foreseeable future. And that won’t be because of some secret plan or petty-mindedness, but rather because we never quite got round to working out what this was all for.
Perhaps the most important aspect of all this is the extent to which the public debate co-opts their proposals, and even their language, as you mentioned earlier on?
You have hit the nail on the head. How do we assess the impact of a political party?
In some contexts, electoral success may be paramount, but we can also simply focus on their policies.
In this sense, one could argue that UKIP has been the most successful right wing populist party in Western Europe, since it contributed to getting the UK out of the EU.
Equally, we see policies on immigration and asylum being tightened across the continent, not just by the populist right but also by the so-called “mainstream” parties, left and right, that are trying to prevent their populist competitors from accessing government. I always mention the case of the supposedly centre-left Italian Democratic Party, whose minister Minniti was the first to sign agreements with the Libyan authorities to stop potential asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean sea. It led to thousands of them being incarcerated and tortured in Libyan prisons after being “captured”, thanks to Italian money and support.
Right-wing populists may not be the “new normal” everywhere, but their impact on others changes what is perceived as “normal”.
Thank you very much, Simon, for putting negotiation behaviour, that sometimes seems difficult to understand, in a different perspective.
Next week, for our “Ideas on Europe” column, we’ll have the pleasure to welcome Nastasza Styczynska, from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.