Bobby McDonagh: The Great British Brexit tantrum

British envoys may be deploying a combination of indignation and stubbornness

On the British side a deeply ingrained misconception exists, namely that prime minister Boris Johnson, by holding out until the last minute last autumn, won major concessions from the EU on the withdrawal agreement. File photograph: Getty

On the British side a deeply ingrained misconception exists, namely that prime minister Boris Johnson, by holding out until the last minute last autumn, won major concessions from the EU on the withdrawal agreement. File photograph: Getty

 

As we enter decisive weeks for the Brexit negotiations, it is important for European negotiators, including Ireland, to understand the psychology of the British government.

I speculated 18 months ago that the United Kingdom might be pursuing a Brexit madman strategy, a recognised theory of negotiations whereby an implied thread of mutually assured destruction will elicit concessions from a frightened interlocutor. It seems to me now that British negotiators may be dabbling with a more novel tantrum strategy, whereby a combination of indignation and stubbornness will enable them to get their ice-cream before they have eaten their broccoli.

Accepting the principle of sovereign equality contributes nothing to the direction or outcome of the negotiations
Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and the EU

It falls to those at the coalface of negotiations, on both sides, to handle the complex detail and, if possible, shape subtle compromises. However, the underlying frame of mind of the British government is now broadly discernible from afar. It has six notable characteristics.

First, the UK has taken to emphasising that the Brexit negotiation is one between sovereign equals. This reflects a sensible enough recognition of the principle of sovereign equality, even if has taken the UK a few meandering centuries to plump definitively for the principle. All countries are, by definition, sovereign equals: the UK, Ireland, Finland, Germany and so on. Insofar as the EU is negotiating, in this context, on behalf of 27 countries it could be said, in current London parlance, to be the UK’s sovereign equal. However, that is merely the context of the negotiations. Accepting the principle of sovereign equality contributes nothing to the direction or outcome of the negotiations.

The principle means, of course, that the United Kingdom is free to pursue its interests as it sees fit, but equally that the European Union is free to define where its own interests lie. UK negotiators, while very vigilant about their sovereign independence, seem at times to see the EU’s sovereignty as in some way constrained to offer specific concessions to Britain, notably a patchwork wish list of trade arrangements which the EU has granted piecemeal to other countries.

Second, the British approach is based on a very low level of ambition for the closeness and smoothness of the future political, economic and trading relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union. It envisages a more flimsy and ragged relationship than promised by Brexiteers in the 2016 referendum, than envisaged by former British prime minister Theresa May or even than that put to the British people in last December’s general election. It envisages a significantly less mutually beneficial relationship than that sought by the EU itself. The psychology behind the constant watering down of Britain’s ambition for the future relationship probably has many threads. The cognitive dissonance that leads governments to double down on folly. The banishment of any self-doubt by an increased devotion to the Brexit cult. The determination not to concede an inch to half the British public, traitors all, who opposed Brexit and now wish to see at least a close and sensible relationship with Europe.

The broad thrust of media messaging seems designed to rally political support behind a fanciful narrative of plucky courage and national liberation

Third, current UK psychology continues to reflect the explicit hostility to experts which made fertile the ground in which the seeds of Brexit were able to flourish. In the ongoing negotiations, valuing expertise remains synonymous with heresy; the interests of British business remain secondary. Coronavirus has obliged some rethink about expertise in London. The importance of fact-based decision making is now as plain as a pikestaff. However, for the moment, Brexit remains largely immune from the inconvenience of pesky facts.

Fourth, the British negotiating approach continues to be pitched primarily towards a domestic audience. The broad thrust of media messaging seems designed to rally political support behind a fanciful narrative of plucky courage and national liberation, rather than to persuade European interlocutors in the real world of negotiation.

Fifth, the underlying psychology remains distinctively English. Views from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue to have little impact on the national negotiating strategy. Minister for the cabinet office Michael Gove recently spoke casually, for example, about an openness to accepting tariffs in the future UK-EU relationship, despite the significantly additional barriers and bureaucracy that such tariffs would mean for goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

Finally, British insouciance about the slow progress in the Brexit negotiations is based largely on a deeply ingrained misconception, namely that prime minister Boris Johnson, by holding out until the last minute last autumn, won major concessions from the EU on the withdrawal agreement. It is true that each side interprets last October’s events differently, but only the British side has constructed a nonchalant cliff-edge strategy based on a dodgy version of events.

Nevertheless, there is still some reason for guarded optimism. The myth of Johnson’s withdrawal agreement triumph could yet point the way. Pragmatic compromise was the chosen path last year and could be again. The rhetoric of sovereignty, doggedness, battle and triumph may provide the cover to sell it.

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