Much Ado About Everything No 4: Brexit — “Finest Hour”, My Foot!

Salzburg was no “ambush”; but Birmingham may be.

Foreword

Earlier this week, I began drafting an article on Brexit for publication on 29 September. It started as follows.

“Although there is an obvious reason for publishing on Brexit today — ie the UK is due to leave the European Union in exactly six months on 29 March 2019 — some may wonder why I seemingly had nothing to say last week around the EU's supposedly critical Salzburg Summit. The reason for this is, in fact, very simple — all the hyperbole and lurid headlines notwithstanding, it was, in my view, yet another example of an overhyped event which really didn’t matter (and I am not just saying this wise AFTER the event!).”

As of today, I stand firmly by this view. However, in the light of what appears to be the bulk of the British press coverage of Prime Minister Theresa May’s subsequent 21 September speech, I am bringing forward publication just in case any of my readers have been gulled by the headline writers into thinking that Salzburg matters. For, looking at the proverbial ‘big picture’, it does not.

Salzburg: No Shocker…

"Brexit has shown us one thing — and I fully respect British sovereignty in saying this — it has demonstrated that those who said you can easily do without Europe, that it will all go very well, that it is easy and there will be lots of money, are liars. This is all the more true because they left the next day, so they didn't have to manage it.”

President Emmanuel Macron, 19 September 2018

So, what really happened in Salzburg?

First and foremost, what Salzburg was not. To anyone who has been paying attention there was nothing surprising about the line which the EU27 took at the informal 19 September summit. Since the immediate aftermath of the UK’s 2016 referendum, they have been clear, consistent and (unusually) united in stating that the UK would be treated as a “third country” after its departure from the EU. In rejecting Mrs May’s Chequers plan (which, let’s face it, is disliked by just about everyone on both sides of the Channel) President of the European Council Donald Tusk was effectively doing no more (or less) than restating this position. And he is right: including for reasons set out at length in my 30 July article focusing on the fate of the UK services sector under Chequers, Mrs May’s plan simply does not work.

If Mrs May was really as surprised by Mr Tusk’s stance as she appears to have been, then, as I wrote on my Facebook page immediately after her 20 September speech, “she seriously doesn't get it”. I continued as follows:

“In a blatant effort to put her job and her party first she comes up with a 'solution' which is totally disrespectful of the fundamental four freedoms of the single market, falsely claiming that it is what the British people voted for and that the EU must 'respect' their will. She demands that the EU comes up with an alternative if it cannot accept her proposal (which has, in any case, been rejected by just about everyone in the UK!) when it actually has, ie 'Canada' or 'Norway'. The fact that she doesn't like either of those is neither here nor there; she is the demandeur here, not the EU.”

In other words, if Salzburg really was an “ambush”, as many UK politicians and commentators (even including some in the normally more sensible Financial Times) claim, it was: either effectively one of Mrs May's own making (ie rooted in her lack of personal experience negotiating in Europe); or because her political advisors are (unwittingly) misleading her; or both.

[Note: This being said, and to be fair to Mrs May, what happened in Salzburg has won her some sympathy in the continental European press. But, other than in the eurosceptic media, this seems to be largely qualified by a belief that she has mainly herself to blame through her own misjudgement and misunderstanding.]

Another (not totally implausible) possibility is that she was taken aback by Mr Tusk’s unusually blunt rebuttal in Salzburg, ie his tone rather than the substance per se (and the somewhat more emollient statement he made in the wake of Mrs May’s 20 September speech does suggest that he is looking to defuse the situation somewhat — without, that is, giving any ground on substance). Frankly, if this was the case (and although Mr Tusk is certainly not totally blameless), I have little sympathy for Mrs May. Not only did she appear not to have been listening to the consistent message from Brussels for the past two years, but she has also done herself no favours both by openly trying to bypass the EU27’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and divide the 27 to the UK’s advantage; or by her own strident tone in the run-up to and during the actual summit.

All this being said, it is not at all clear that anything has really changed substantively. The EU27 have clearly restated their position and determination to stick to a rules-based approach in their future relationship with the UK. But there is still no reason to suppose that this will prevent Brexit from happening, one way or the other, on 29 March 2019 under the terms of a withdrawal agreement which will most likely be finalised in November at the mooted ‘special summit’. And resolving issues embedded in the future relationship will be put off until after the UK has actually left the EU, as I have long expected — including, of course, the Irish border question which remains key. This would not necessarily make them any easier to resolve; but it would put off the possibility of a truly ‘hard’ Brexit until the end of December 2020 — by which time the Brexit-related stresses which are becoming increasingly apparent in the UK economy may have brought sufficient parliamentarians to the senses that a worst case scenario is avoided.

…but Birmingham may be

A third (and more plausible) possibility is that Mrs May’s tough talk is aimed largely at a domestic audience rather than her EU27 counterparts. The audience in question would primarily be the 80 or so hardline members of her own Conservative Party who make up the so-called European Research Group.

When the ‘party faithful’ gathers in Birmingham on 30 September for the Conservative’s four-day annual conference the determination of this group to drive the UK over the cliff of a hard Brexit at the earliest possible date, ie 29 March 2019, will only be further bolstered. Even if it means ousting Mrs May at the risk of splitting the party and precipitating an(other) early general election, which could see the main opposition Labour Party, despite its own schisms, leading the next government. This is always assuming, of course, that Mrs May survives a possible cabinet revolt against the Chequers plan which could come as early as 24 September.

In my 21 August article on the "canyon" dividing the Conservative Party, I wrote as follows:

“The major immediate challenge [Mrs May] faces…remains, in my view, that the Brexiteers [in here party] appear to believe (rightly, I think) that the longer the process drags out the less likely they are to achieve the clean break with the EU which they crave. I therefore reckon there to be a non-negligible probability that they will seek to stage some sort of open revolt at the party conference, a prospect which (whether it materialises or not) greatly complicates the task of reaching an exit agreement in time for the 18/19 October [EU] summit (let alone agreement on the future relationship, which is surely implausible by then with so little time remaining even if that is Mrs May's objective)…. I would…put the probability of Mrs May avoiding a ‘Tory Canyon’ disaster in the next six weeks — and, therefore, of the UK avoiding a hard Brexit on 29 March by pushing critical decisions into the transition period — at no higher than 60%.”

In short, if Mrs May and something close to her Chequers plan (unacceptable though it is ultimately) can survive the next two weeks or so, we should be on track for a reasonably orderly Brexit in March. But, on one count or the other, I would still put a 40% probability on her failing.

Foot(!)note

The image at the top of this article is a screenshot from today’s Daily Express, one of the most europhobic of the British tabloids. The finest hour reference, as many will understand, is an allusion to then Prime Minister Winston Churchill's June 1940 eve of Battle of Britain speech to Parliament. Its use speaks volumes for the mindset of many of the hardline Brexiteers (not least aspiring May-successor, Boris Johnson).

As for “my foot”, which may be more obscure to non-Brit readers, it is a very British way of saying that one totally disagrees (ie, for the benefit of francophones, equivalent to the French “mon oeuil!”).

Alastair Newton

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