Barbara Tuchman, the US historian, explored the phenomenon of societies that decide to act against their own interests but increasingly convince themselves that they are travelling along the right path. She calls this phenomenon the “march of folly”. The “march of Brexit”, over the past six years, illustrates well the type of decision and delusion described by Tuchman.
Stephen Collins’s valuable book about the Brexit negotiations explains, convincingly and entertainingly, how the march of Brexit has followed a long and winding road, how it has seen innumerable twists and turns, how it has witnessed periods of dangerous dawdling followed by spurts of negotiation. The book focuses on the most difficult issue throughout the negotiations, namely the inevitable impact of Brexit on the delicate balances in Northern Ireland. Despite the formal agreement reached by the UK and the EU on how to minimise the damage in that regard, a difficult road ahead still looms.
Collins manages to fashion the highly complex events into a coherent and readable narrative. He benefits from frank interviews with key figures, especially on the Irish side, and draws skilfully on published sources in London and Brussels. While he sets out the important technical detail and negotiating texts, his book is more about the personalities of the people involved and the relationships between them. Motivation, emotional intelligence and trust loom larger in his narrative than dry texts and drafting.
Looking back, through the lens of this book, at the long sweep of negotiations, the EU and Ireland had three important things on their side: strategic planning, unity and a close relationship between politicians and officials.
Evaluation of options
As Collins explains, when the Irish Government met in the early hours of the morning after the Brexit vote in June 2016, it already had a strategic plan that it started to put into effect that very day across European capitals. It knew throughout the process what its negotiating priorities were and shaped its approach accordingly. Likewise, the European Commission, through Michel Barnier and his task force, was always ahead of the game in its analysis of implications and evaluation of options. This unity stood in sharp contrast with London. As Collins points out, former prime minister Theresa May’s announcement in January 2017, before she had even the glimmer of a negotiating strategy, that she would trigger negotiations in March, meant that she was playing “one of the UK’s few strong negotiating cards without any idea of how she intended to play it”. It was well over two years after the Brexit referendum, at a meeting with her cabinet in Chequers, on July 6th, 2018, that Theresa May finally cobbled together a negotiating position that was promptly undermined by the resignation of Boris Johnson and David Davis.
Ireland’s second advantage was the commendable unity across the political spectrum in Dublin. This was complemented by the remarkably unified approach of the European Union reflecting its support both for Ireland and the Belfast Agreement. The British government’s belief that it could drive a wedge between member states was an egregious misjudgment. The support of our EU partners remains rock solid today. It was obvious to any observer that the British approach to the Brexit negotiations was characterised by disunity and infighting, including in parliament. May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell − who, like his boss, comes well out of the book − commented after the Chequers meeting that “at a time when we should have been straining every sinew to sell the proposals to the EU, we were instead engaged in a desperate effort to sell them to the Conservative Party”.
The third strong point on the Irish side, as well as in the European Commission, was the constructive and easy relationship between officials and politicians. No doubt there was frequent and appropriately frank discussion of different options. However, the system whereby civil servants offer honest advice, without fear or favour, and politicians then take the decisions – ironically inherited from our British friends – continues to be the best one. In contrast, the British strategy was based less on objective advice about British interests than on blind faith in the Brexit revolution. Several distinguished British civil servants have fallen to the guillotine of the Brexit Jacobins, most recently, since Liz Truss took office, the most senior civil servant at the UK treasury. An unwillingness to listen to the best advice, as Tuchman warns us, is dangerous for any government.
If you’re still wondering what the hell the Brexit negotiations were about, this is the book for you.