Brexit endgame: More Baldrick than Machiavelli

As Brexit talks move into the final phase, is the UK government determined to crash out with No Deal or is it playing a tactical game designed to obtain what it believes to be the best deal possible? Regardless of its ‘cunning plan,’ trust is being burned at a rate of knots, writes David O’Sullivan.
Brexit demonstration

By David O'Sullivan

David O’Sullivan served as Ambassador of the European Union Delegation to the United States from November 2014 until February 2019

14 Sep 2020

Brexit reminds me of the joke Woody Allen tells at the opening of Annie Hall. Two retired women at a resort are complaining about the quality of the food. “It’s terrible,” says one. “Yes,” the other replies, “And such small portions!”

The Leave campaign was based on two fundamental lies. The first was that most of the problems facing the UK were attributable to EU membership, whether that was immigration, the declining quality of public services or the growing disparities between incomes and regions.

The second was that it would be perfectly possible for the UK to leave the EU without any loss of the limited benefits which membership did bring, such as access to the EU single market, or education and research programmes, while the potential impact of leaving the EU on the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland was completely ignored.

One by one, the lies have been exposed as the process of making Brexit a reality has developed.

It has gradually become more and more clear that the real problems of British society are the result of home-grown policy choices rather than anything imposed by Brussels.

Equally, it has become progressively more obvious that leaving the EU comes with real costs and tradeoffs. And the issue of Northern Ireland - and how to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland - has become one of the thorniest problems, as evidenced again last week.

“It has gradually become more and more clear that the real problems of British society are the result of home-grown policy choices rather than anything imposed by Brussels”

We are entering the final phase of the Brexit endgame. The UK formally became a third country at the end of January, but the transition period which will expire at the end of the year effectively means that, so far, relatively little has changed.

The illusion of a painless exit still lingers, soon to be confronted by painful realities on 1 January.

The focus had shifted from the Withdrawal Agreement, which enshrined the mechanics of departure, to the shaping of the future relationship.

But recent developments in London have brought the WA back into focus as the UK government appears to be ready unilaterally to rewrite the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Johnson’s handling of the negotiations was hailed as a huge triumph.

Nobody can understand whether the UK government is determined to crash out with No Deal or is playing a tactical game designed to obtain what they believe to be the best deal possible.

Trust is being burned at a rate of knots. UK tactics are deeply damaging to relations with all EU Member States, and especially to relations with Ireland, while risking completely to alienate Democratic opinion in the United States at a time when Joe Biden looks poised to be the next President. If there is a plan, it smacks more of Baldrick than of Machiavelli.

“UK tactics are deeply damaging to relations with all EU Member States, and especially to relations with Ireland, while risking completely to alienate Democratic opinion in the United States”

For the EU, Brexit has always been a lose-lose dilemma, with no truly good outcome possible for either side. The departure of the UK is a real loss, even if it also creates opportunities. (It is highly unlikely that the ambitious outcome of the budget discussions around the COVID recovery fund would have been possible if the UK were still around the table).

On the other hand, having a functioning, and even successful, UK, as a close partner would be a good second best. That is what the EU has been trying to achieve.

In the eyes of its most fervent believers, Brexit probably always was about somehow “making the UK great again.”

That dream, such as it was, is rapidly turning into a nightmare in front of our eyes. The worry now has to be that Brexit is undermining the very foundations of the British state, including the future of the UK itself.

The UK will always be a valued member of the European family. We have every interest in the vibrancy of its economy, its democracy and its voice in favour of the values we have always shared.

A dysfunctional, and struggling UK is in nobody’s interest, but it is far from clear how the EU can now help save Britain from itself.

Terrible food. And such small portions!

 

David O’Sullivan is writing in a personal capacity

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