Simon Usherwood / May 2018
You might have noticed that the UK is having a bit of an (extended) moment about Brexit. Despite being nearly halfway through the Article 50 process, and almost two years on from the referendum, there’s no settled official position about what the country wants from leaving.
That’s true not only of the future relationship with the EU – soft and close, or hard and distant – but also of the way in which to get to that. On the Irish dimension and the role of the Court of Justice, politicians and commentators hurl arguments and accusations – sometimes even some facts – at each other, trying to shape the deal that needs to be in place for March 2019.
Countless column inches and minutes of TV, plus millions of digits online, are spent in this, and most of it to little effect. For a country that says it’s committed to combating global warming, there’s an awful lot of hot air being produced.
A big part of the problem is that the basic point of reference for much of the debate is wrong.
Typically, when Brits talk about Brexit, they talk about what they want and, by extension, what the UK should want. The object of the exercise is shaping and defining British policy.
But in so doing, they neglect that this is a process that has more than just one party.
In fairness, this is a common problem in people’s conceptualisation of negotiations. They see just two elements: ‘us’ and ‘them’. We want something, they want something else, we meet in the middle. Job done.
Things not work quite like that, however.
In international political negotiations, the important point to remember is that states – ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’ – isn’t a monolith, but rather a fluid aggregation of different actors and interests.
Indeed, it’s exactly the thing that the British are doing right now: competing internally, to set an external position.
What gets missed is that the same is happening elsewhere, in other states.
In the case of the EU, it’s even more complex, because each member state not only has its internal competition, but also an external competition with other member states, to shape EU policy and preferences.
Put differently, to win control of your country’s agenda doesn’t give you the power to decide everything: it only gives you the power to go and negotiate with ‘them’, who’ll turn out to also be struggling to manage domestic audiences.
But why does any off this matter to us?
Well, two big reasons offer themselves up for inspection.
The more immediate one is that whoever prevails in the British debate will find that they have to then work around what the EU wants. Indeed, the experience of the past year has been that the UK government has been doing a lot of that, as it finds that its ideas aren’t viable, politically or legally.
Witness the backtracking on citizens’ rights and finances or the acceptance of the backstop option on Ireland. The current crab-wise movement on customs is another example.
Because it doesn’t get much discussion, the lack of visibility of ‘them’ in the British debate makes it look like incapacity or backsliding by the government, which ultimately doesn’t help it sell any final deal to the public or to Parliament.
And this is the second issue.
Alongside the meetings between the British government and the Commission in the Article 50 negotiations, there has been a parallel process within the UK, to put in place a legal framework to manage the move out from the European Union.
Partly that’s been about rolling over the EU’s acquis, but it’s also become a key battleground between competing groups over the process for approving whatever deal comes out of Article 50 itself. The recent defeats of the government in the House of Lords have raised big questions about this, as they have opened up the possibility of Parliament being able to send the government back to the EU to renegotiate terms.
In domestic terms, this can be framed as a victory for democracy and common-sense. But in negotiating terms, it’s a big problem.
Government might get sent away to ‘do better’, but it’s not in a position to guarantee that it’ll be able to get better, because it’s a negotiation. Even if a concession can be won, that might come at a price to ‘them’ that Parliament finds unacceptable.
Such problems would be difficult at the best of times, but recall that Article 50 is time-limited: no deal by 29 March 2019 means the UK leaves with no deal at all. Any discussion of extension immediately gets bound up in what price might have to be paid.
The worse mistake to make about any negotiation is to see it as a battle. That just encourages conflict and zero-sum thinking: if you get something, then I must have lost something.
Instead, negotiations should be handled as problem-solving: working together, we can all get something positive from this. But part of that is recognising that ‘we’ isn’t only the other people on ‘our side’, but also everyone from ‘their side’ too.
Those fighting to control the UK’s policy risk missing the fundamental truth that Brexit is not just about the UK.