July 07, 2020

The Road to Nowhere

The Johnson government has been conducting the negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU in cavalier fashion; the prime minister is banking on “English exceptionalism.” A “no-deal” Brexit or a series of last-minute mini-agreements are the most likely outcome now.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
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“Fog Over Channel; Europe Cut off.” The newspaper headline from the 1940s is probably apocryphal. But urban myths often tell the best stories. Die Insel, as Germans have taken to calling Britain, is never happier when it is just that, an island fighting the good fight in blissful isolation. The story of Brexit—from its roots to the referendum and to the bathos of the disengagement negotiations—reflects this.

I was one of those who predicted that the United Kingdom would vote to leave in 2016. Indeed, such was my agony over the state of liberal democracy, I bet on a three-way sequence of victories, including Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and Marine Le Pen winning in France. She let me down, but no matter…

What I got wrong was the next part. I blithely assumed that the UK would want to retain some form of strong association with the European Union, whether that be membership of the European Economic Area (the way non-EU member Norway participates in the Single Market), or something more tailored but similar. That was probably the intention of Theresa May, but with Boris Johnson everything is different. His loins stirred by his comprehensive election victory in December 2019 he sees Brexit as his Churchillian moment. With one more heave, Britain will be free. Intellectually he does not believe this nonsense, but he has embraced it as a means of guaranteeing his place in the history books. And as an avid reader, and writer, of history, that weighs heavily on him.

No Normal Negotiations

Both the tone and the substance of the negotiations since the UK’s formal departure on January 31 have been guided by this hubris. What seems to matter most to Johnson are the optics—the UK and the EU negotiating as equal partners. They clearly are not equal, judging by any economic criteria, but the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, was wise enough to try to indulge the Brits, only to find that his interlocutors weren’t actually interested in what Brussels or any international organization would regard as normal negotiation.

The British government wanted the full cake—frictionless access to EU markets—and to eat it—complete freedom to operate outside European regulations on everything from food safety to the environment to workers’ rights. In effect they ripped up the Political Declaration, which accompanied the Withdrawal Treaty, insisting that the UK had not signed up to any commitment to a “level playing field.”

The COVID-19 Brexit bonus for Johnson is often overlooked. Yes, the pandemic has shown him up as a charlatan, as someone with very little grasp of detail or ability to manage complex situations. Yes, Britain has become the object of global derision (after the United States), a “how-not-to” guide in dealing with a health crisis.

But the prime minister also knows that it gives him leeway to indulge in his favorite hobby—English exceptionalism. More than 20 years since the last branding exercise, Cool Britannia, at the start of Tony Blair’s rule, Johnson has more of an opportunity now than he would have had during normal times to stamp his vision on the country and its international relations.

Banking on Insularity

Language is at the center of this, just as it has been at the center of his hapless attempts to counter COVID-19. Every announcement has been accompanied by the strapline “world-beating” —whether it be the app that didn’t work or the bail-out for the arts that, while generous, still fell below the level of support Germany and other countries have mustered. Given the insularity of most of the British media (with usually the only reference point being the United States), that tends to keep his voters happy.

Johnson’s biggest godsend from the COVID-19 crisis is the fact that the economic damage caused specifically by Brexit can now never be quantified. It will be subsumed into the coronavirus war-spirit narrative of plucky Britain receiving a terrible shock but fighting back. The fact that the regions that voted “no” to EU membership back in 2016 will be disproportionately hit by Brexit and by the pandemic will be glossed over in the patriotic fervor.

Four rounds into the negotiations, the acrimony has only increased. Commentators talk of a “hot phase” coming up in September. Downing Street has made it clear it wants the trade talks to end that month and, as a token of its faux impatience, it has named the ultra-loyal David Frost, who has been leading the British negotiations, as head of the National Security Council. He will not be replaced, it insists.

All signs point either to a “no-deal” or to a series of last-minute temporary deals that help to paper over important cracks in issues ranging from security to aviation but that will store up future tensions. When Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag recently that the EU “must be prepared” for a crash-out, she was representing the overwhelming view in national governments. With so much else to deal withfrom COVID-19 to China to Trump and the US electionsMerkel has made it clear she does not want Germany’s EU presidency to spend time mulling over Brexit. What’s done is done. In truth, Germany and other member states have long ago “got over” the issue. Britain left on January 31 and everything since then is simply an annoyance to be dealt with.

No Comprehensive Treaty

The EU will clearly not get the comprehensive treaty with the UK that it had assumed would underpin a new, harmonious relationship. It has made clear there will be no economic partnership without guarantees for regulatory alignment, a sustainable and long-term solution for European fishermen, and an “overarching institutional framework and effective dispute settlement mechanisms.” It does not want to make it easy for London to maintain its status in global financial markets.

Most of all, it does not want to provide succor for the remaining 27 members if any of them contemplated leaving (such has been the torture of the UK’s departure, it has dampened the euroskeptic ambitions among nationalists in countries like Hungary, Poland and Italy). Life outside the EU cannot be seen to be better, say Brussels officials.

The British line, for once, is clear and candid. The prime minister’s official spokesman has said: “We believe that there is a free trade agreement to be reached but we have also been very clear that we will be prepared for either eventuality at the end of the year, whether that be a free trade agreement or having a trading relationship based on the same terms that Australia currently has.”

In other words: we don’t mind either way. And no matter how counter-productive that may be in the long term, that is the view of Johnson’s people. They have convinced themselves that the great Anglophone people of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand will ensure that great trade deals are made. Trump continues to shower praise on Johnson. Whether that holds true in the event of a Biden presidency remains to be seen.

The British Spirit

In September 2019, as the prospect of a no-deal departure loomed large, the extent of the anticipated chaos was set out by a civil service document entitled Operation Yellowhammer. Everything from shortages of medicines to motorways having to be shut to accommodate lorry queues was anticipated. Johnson dismisses such thinking as the preserve of “gloomsters and doomsters”—otherwise known as Remainers and people around Theresa May who were excessively cautious and filled with insufficient ardor.  

Britain will be freed of the yoke of Brussels because they are an exceptionally freedom-loving people, he declares. Britain is special. Indeed, anything that comes from the EU, and particularly its institutions, is likely to be dismissed out of hand, as choking the British spirit. That is why the UK locked down after pretty much everyone else. That is why it flirted with the idea of herd immunity. That is why it did not bother to join the EU’s joint procurement program for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. That is why it opened its pubs before it opened its schools.

The apogee (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of this greatness rhetoric was provided in early 2019 by Gavin Williamson. In a government not replete with talent or intellect, Williamson is generally regarded as bottom of the class. And he is in charge of education. “Brexit has brought us to a great moment, in our ­history,” he boasted. “A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass.”

Humor remains one of the UK’s great exports. Inexhaustible optimism is the new product that carries a “Made in Britain” tag. It will get the country through, just as it had during the pandemic, in spite of one of the worst death rates in the world. To what destination? That is not Johnson’s concern. It has got him this far and will doubtlessly carry him further.

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