Why the UK’s juvenile Brexiteers can’t see what’s staring them in the face

Chris Johns: The UK still doesn’t realise it can’t divide and rule the other EU members

Brexit   basics: Emmanuel Macron not only repeatedly tells Theresa May what the British can’t have but is also equally clear about what is on the table. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Brexit basics: Emmanuel Macron not only repeatedly tells Theresa May what the British can’t have but is also equally clear about what is on the table. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA


It took a visit to England by the president of France to give a much-needed reminder that Brexit is only just over a year away. The debate has grown strangely quiet in the UK, with many people either bored or battered into submission.

The national mood is sullen. Attention, never a strong suit of the Brexiteers, has wandered elsewhere. Even Nigel Farage couldn’t attract much interest with his suggestion, quickly withdrawn, that a second referendum is needed. Only European leaders seemed to notice; several, including Emmanuel Macron, say the United Kingdom is more than welcome to forget the whole thing.

Ian Dunt, a prominent Brexit commentator, points out that Brexit is now happening without the British, with all the running made in Brussels. And by running he means preparations. It’s as if the Brexiteers have behaved like teenagers trashing the family home during a particularly riotous party. The kids have moved on, leaving the adults with the clean-up. But there are consequences for the children, including punishment – perhaps even retribution.

If anything Brexit-related is going on in Britain right now it is invisible. Behind the scenes the civil service is making preparations, but they are all devoted to having your cake and eating it: a bespoke free-trade deal, encompassing all goods and services, plus complete freedom to negotiate third-party trade deals; no more freedom of movement; and no more European Court of Justice. It doesn’t matter how many times or ways in which European politicians say no; the British just don’t seem to listen.

Politicians like Macron not only repeatedly tell the British what they can’t have but are also equally clear about what is on the table. The EU’s negotiating parameters have been clear from day one. A bespoke deal is possible, but only in the sense that every deal the EU has ever negotiated has been bespoke.

The boundaries have been set by previous deals with Norway and Canada. Free trade in goods and very few services, not least those of the financial variety, means a Canada-style deal. A more comprehensive free-trade deal means you edge towards a Norway-style solution. The UK has publicly turned down both options. British negotiators, in public at least, behave as if they believe the EU doesn’t mean what it says. Maybe they are waiting for Europe to come around, via some magical process, to the British point of view.

This is exactly how the first round of negotiations proceeded: the EU said what it meant and meant what it said. Only British capitulation and a total fudge on the Irish border allowed talks to proceed to the next stage. And we now rinse and repeat.

The UK has lost interest, and new negotiating guidelines are being painstakingly laid down in Brussels. All the signs are that those parameters are becoming much tougher.

The British hope that differences between the EU 27 can now be exploited to their advantage. And the next phase of talks will indeed be a test of EU solidarity. Different countries will be thinking of their own trade, security and political interests. Divide and rule can work. It helped the British establish and run an empire for quite a while, and there is a strong resonance of all of this in the public pronouncements of the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. It seems he hasn’t bothered to get to the last chapter of the history books, where it is explained how, eventually, things didn’t work out too well for the empire.

Brexiteers have never understood the differences and interplay between interests and ideas. In a fascinating recent blog exchange the Harvard professors Dani Rodrik and Peter Hall explore the ways our behaviour is driven by our interests, ideas or both in a manner that many Brexiteers should consider. They would understand why President Macron made such an impact this week.

France has interests that a particular type of Brexit deal would best serve. This probably means giving UK companies as much of a free pass as possible in the single market. That’s what UK negotiators are clearly hoping to exploit.

But this would counter both France’s longer-term interests and its ideas of itself. Anything that degrades the principles of the single market is clearly not in the interests of French companies: it won’t be long before other countries, in and out of the EU, start looking for a Brexit-style sweetheart deal. Equally important, a generous bespoke deal for the UK directly conflicts with the ideas France has for Europe’s future. That’s where interests and ideas intersect.

In any battle, any negotiation, it is wise to try to understand what motivates the other side. Yes, EU countries have differing interests that the British will try to exploit. But this betrays only a very superficial understanding of what Europe is about. Europe’s ideas about itself shape what it considers its interests to be. The effort needed to figure all this out, to understand their opponents, is clearly beyond the wit of the Brexiteers. It remains an uneven and brutal contest.