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We find ourselves at the end of the phoney war. Probably.
With only a few weeks left until Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline for Article 50 notification, the most striking thing as one looks around is the almost-complete absence of interest in the issue.
In the UK, this might partly be understood by the wait on the House of Lords to complete their approval of the legislation. However, despite the government’s expectation that this will result in amendments and thus ‘ping pong’ with the House of Commons, which in turn might mean missing the end-March deadline, there is scarcely a whisper of discontent.
Indeed, the most notable intervention of recent weeks has come from Tomas Prouza, Czech State Secretary for European Affairs. He spoke at an event I attended last week in Prague, with a speech that was mainly noted in the UK as accusing May of lying about the impact of EU immigrants on the UK. Sitting in the audience, that wasn’t my take-home.
Instead, Prouza seemed more interested in underlining the point that May has still to set out anything like a comprehensive negotiating position for Article 50: in his words, the White Paper did nothing except state that “Theresa May’s speech means Theresa May’s speech” and a broad hope that everyone could get along well in future.
In short, Prouza was making the basic observation that the Czech government – and the EU27 – have paid (and do pay) attention to what is happening in the UK and are factoring it into their calculations: there is no hermetic sealing off of British political debate from the outside world. That such a thing has to be said betrays both the state of the UK’s discussion on Article 50 and the self-image of the country.
The biggest unknown in the process right now is how much May has adequately laid the groundwork for starting negotiations. That includes knowing what the EU7 are likely to ask for and who she can work on to help her achieve her objectives. As the Prague conference noted several times, the UK has traditionally been very good at divide-and-rule in the EU, with a series of partnerships on different issues with other member states. At the same time, Prouza did note that in all the like-minded groups, much work has done into sorting out who will pick up the UK’s role, so much disinvestment in relations with the British has already taken place. And in a context of departure on uncertain terms, what can the UK offer that will be of interest to others?
More crucially, the British government has still to articulate what it wants. Even the concession that it will not seek to break the four freedoms seems to have sunk without much trace, largely because the EU27 have been so adamant that this was never going to be an option: the UK is simply falling into line, not giving anything up. Beyond that, the government is still parroting the line about finding innovative solutions to membership of the customs union, without any idea of how that might work.
All of this does not bode well.
The end-March deadline still looks questionable, both on the British side and for the EU27, who are still deep in a pile of other problems that require their attention. Even if May has decided that notification in or around the EU’s 60th anniversary celebrations, or even participation at that event in Rome, is a bad way to kick things off, March remains a terrible time, between the resumption of the annual refugee traffic across the Mediterranean, an uneasy Russia and a US administration that looks ever-less in control, not to mention the persistent need for Eurozone reform, and a big bunch of important national elections.
The mistake not to be made, however, is to assume that this helps the UK get a better deal. Further delay on an already-much-delayed notification will win no friends and gain no advantage. Likewise, the UK needs to recognise that the time that has already gone has been used by the EU27 to settle many points of difference among them, leaving the latter better-placed to shape both the process and the content of negotiations.
As such, the view from Prague is the same as it is from other capitals: don’t think you can mess us about. as Prouza commented, the Czechs have many links with the UK, but they also have them with other EU states and right now, ‘club membership has more benefits.’
About a decade ago in the US, there was a minor scandal about a ‘bridge to nowhere’: substantial federal funds had been appropriated to build a bridge to replace a little-used ferry to an Alaskan island, mainly – it appeared – to serve the pork-barrel politics of Washington.
Theresa May might find herself reflecting on this tale as she returns from the informal meeting of EU heads in Malta on Friday. Alongside the ostensible purpose of the summit – to discuss migration policy and plan for the future of the EU – this was a last opportunity for May to demonstrate her bone fides to colleagues ahead of Article 50 notification next month.
May arrived in Valletta as the only one of the participants to have met Donald Trump since his inauguration, a meeting secured at great speed to bolster her tentative plans for the UK to use Brexit as a springboard to get out into the international system. Taking Trump’s vague enthusiasm for pursuing free trade negotiations as a mandate for this course of action, May’s message to the European Council was two-fold.
Firstly, the UK wishes the EU well in its future development, both because a healthy EU is – politically and economically-speaking – good for the UK, and because May recognises that now is not the time to raise backs, on the verge of a set of negotiations where the UK will be asking much of the EU.
Secondly, May offered the UK a link to the US, an intermediator with a Trump administration that has, by turns, bemused and shocked many in Europe. Playing on both the historic ties that the UK has with the US and the potential close relationship that May talks of for Article 50, May was arguing that the UK still matters.
As far as this went, it represents as coordinated and developed a plan as May has presented to date.
The problem, as so often, is that the UK appears to have made its plans without much reference to what the EU is discussing.
At one level this is very understandable, because the two are heading in different directions: the UK government has to think about what is good for the country’s future path, while the EU has a very different set of concerns. Valletta is a case in point, with the need to regulate migrant flows across the Mediterranean a matter of pressing concern for the EU27 in a way that it certainly isn’t for the UK.
However, at every other level, it represents a failure of British government policy, one that has long characterised the UK’s membership of the EU. The unwillingness – or inability – of successive generations of British politicians and civil servants to conceptualise European integration as anything other than a matter of economic cooperation has led to repeated category errors in policy.
Valletta highlighted this mismatch in a number of ways.
Firstly, the EU’s self-image is that of a substantial and significant part of the international system, with enough depth and scope to be able to fend for itself. May’s offer of a bridge across the Atlantic looked both condescending and irrelevant: the mood music in many European capitals is that Trump will be handled with the longest of spoons or simply ignored as much as possible until a successor arrives in the White House. As Dalia Grybauskaitė, archly noted, “I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”
Secondly, Brexit still looks like an irritant to the EU27. For all of May’s fine words in Valletta, the general impression of the UK is that there is still no clear plan or process for Article 50. Recall that the meeting came after the confusions and vaguenesses of May’s Lancaster House speech, Parliament’s first steps to passing an Article 50 Bill and a White Paper that struggled to offer any substantive policy positions.
For several months after the referendum, Brexit looking like it might be one of the more manageable problems on the EU’s agenda: self-contained, removing a less-than-fulsome partner from the mix, and heading away from the EU rather than heading towards it. More recently, that confidence has been turning into uncertainty about timing and concern that the UK lacks the set of objectives it will need to guide itself through the negotiations. Sympathy looks in very short supply in EU27 capitals, even with a Maltese Presidency than might be expected to be a natural ally.
Once again, May is like the guest who turns up at a party, bearing some inappropriate gift. Worse still, she appears to have little interest in maximising her opportunities: having set up a bilateral with Angela Merkel for Friday afternoon, it was cancelled at short notice, as May felt she had covered the necessary points in an informal chat during a walkabout earlier in the day. Maybe this was discretion – not taking up time with empty rhetoric – but it also speaks to the lack of a detailed plan that May can share with those she will need to convince in the coming months.
And that Alaskan bridge? It never got built in the end. In a time of profound political uncertainty, both domestically and internationally, the UK is going to have to find a better gambit if it is to demonstrate its value to an EU that teeters on the edge of turning in on itself.
This post was originally written for www.ukandeu.ac.uk
Today’s White Paper on “The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union” fulfils a government commitment to provide Parliament with its considered opinion about how to manage the process of Brexit.
Quite aside from the timing issue – coming as it does a day after the second reading of the EU(NOW) Bill – the White Paper is important as its lays down something of a benchmark for the government that it cannot move away from too easily.
However, unlike the vast majority of such documents, this relates to a negotiation, with the EU, its 27 other member states and its own parliament.
Thus matters, because it means that the government is not in a position to deliver whatever it feels like saying, but instead can only offer its hope for that negotiation.
The upshot of this is that the White Paper makes minimal advances on Theresa May’s speech two weeks ago: it’s structured on the same 12 principles, it uses much of the same wording and – most importantly – it offers as few concrete positions as it is possible to imagine.
Beyond reaffirming the desire to stop free movement of people, and accepting that this means the other freedoms must also be halted, there is still no established plan or approach. Indeed, the majority of the White Paper should be read as a list of the points that the UK government believes need to be covered in Article 50 negotiations, rather than as what particular outcome on each individual point should be.
In short, the White Paper is a roadmap, rather than a set of directions. With the latter, you are heading somewhere in particular; while with the former, you’re just aware of what might be here and hereabouts.
Actually, the White Paper doesn’t even really do this. The most glaring omissions relate to the financial aspects: there is passing reference to the budget and liabilities, but nothing at all on how big these might be or how the government wishes to tackle them.
On the generous interpretation, Theresa May is trying to keep her options open as much as possible, rather than making promises she can’t keep in a negotiation in which the UK has only limited power to secure its aims.
However, even in this view one has to wonder whether ‘keeping options open’ is just cover for ‘we still don’t know what we want to achieve’. For the sake of all sides in the coming negotiations, we should hope that this isn’t the case, because there is nothing more difficult than trying to reach an agreement with someone who doesn’t know what they’re aiming for. The clock continues to countdown to March.