I’ve long marveled at the patience of the EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. I would have given the UK’s representatives a dressing down a long time ago for their lack of seriousness and their arrogance.
It turns out I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Theresa May insisted on getting an audience with EU leaders on Brexit at this month’s Salzburg conference, with the aim of wresting Brexit concessions from them. Barnier showed an uncharacteristic bit of ire when May announced her plan, telling her she’d find no distance between his position and that of his principals.
May would have done well to heed Barnier’s warning. Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron, among others, told May in no uncertain terms what Barnier and other high level sources had said in a not-very-coded manner, that her so-called Checquers plan was dead on arrival. This should have been no surprise. As Richard North wrote today:
On 7 July, in the wake of the now infamous Chequers meeting, I wrote of what has now become known as the “Chequers plan” that: “the precise reasons for the EU’s rejection, when it comes, will not be at all difficult to work out”.
It was always going to be the case that the EU would reject the plan but, at that point, I reasoned that it would be given the deep six by the European Council at the October meeting. What no-one reckoned on was it being thrown out at the informal European Council at Salzburg.
The EU has been clear from the get-go: no four freedoms (and that includes the free movement of people), no Single Market. And asking the EU to set up a whole new bureaucracy and legal arrangements to let the UK have its cake and eat it to was an obviously ludicrous demand, save to those inside the UK’s bubble.
Tusk told May she needs to deliver a new plan by October 18, and that also includes a “breakthrough” for the Irish border, and that the emergency EU summit set for November was on only if the European Council deemed there to be a realistic possibility of getting a deal done in its October meeting.
The UK press reaction is decidedly unhelpful. For instance, the headline of the Financial Times’ account describes May as “ambushed” and the Guardian’s, as “humiliated”. And some details, first from the Financial Times:
The UK prime minister’s allies had hoped the EU would use an informal summit in Salzburg to offer words of encouragement about her compromise Chequers Brexit plan, to help her fend off her Conservative Eurosceptic critics at home.
Instead Donald Tusk, European Council president, threw out the centrepiece of Mrs May’s proposal — an EU-UK free trade area covering goods and agriculture — leaving her fighting to save her Brexit strategy.
“There are positive elements in the Chequers proposal but the suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work, not least because it risks undermining the single market,” Mr Tusk said…
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, one of the fiercest critics of the Chequers plan, said: “Brexit shows us one thing: it’s not that easy to exit the European Union. It’s not without cost. It’s not without consequences.”
He said that the Leave victory in Britain’s 2016 EU referendum was “pushed by those who predicted easy solutions”.
“Those people are liars,” the president added.
Merkel joined the chorus. From Richard North:
Angela Merkel also pitched in, confirming that the EU was “united that, in the matter of the single market”. There can be “no compromises”, she said, adding: “No-one can belong to the single market if they are not part of the single market”.
But maybe “humiliation” wasn’t an exaggeration after all. From the Independent, EU council president mocks Theresa May on Instagram with ‘cake’ gag after Salzburg humiliation:
The president of the European Council has rubbed salt into the wounds of Theresa May’s Brexit humiliation in Salzburg by mocking her negotiating strategy on Instagram.
During the summit Donald Tusk ushered the Prime Minister over to a strategically positioned tray of cakes and offered her a morsel to eat…
He posted a picture on Instagram of the prime minister and himself at the cake stand with the caption: “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.”
Yet the Guardian tell us, astonishingly, that May is acting as if the Checquers plan is still viable:
Theresa May was left fighting to save her Chequers Brexit plan and with it her authority as prime minister after she was ambushed at the end of the Salzburg summit when EU leaders unexpectedly declared that her proposals would not work.
On Thursday night the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, hit back for the government, declaring there were no changes to the Chequers plan on the table and the EU’s demands on Northern Ireland were “impossible” for the UK to accept. “The PM has set out red lines that this country is not going to stay in the single market, we’re not going to stay in the customs union – I agree with her on those, that’s the government’s position,” Grayling said….
May was also set an October deadline for a solution on the Irish border issue just hours after informing Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, in a private breakfast meeting that she felt it would be impossible to come to a compromise within such a timescale.
But May has no one to blame but herself. She’s refused to listen to clear and consistent messages from EU leaders, from Angela Merkel on down, from the very morning after the Brexit vote. The UK has faffed around, sent in at best napkin-doodle-level schemes and even then, extremely late in the game, and expected the EU to accept them. This have been extreme form Dunning Kruger syndrome,The EU has lost patience with the strategy of trying to avoid making May look bad to try to prevent Tory Ultras from taking over the Government. That has proved to be exceptionally hard given her incompetence. And as a Financial Times reader pointed out:
There is something seriously wrong when a British Prime Minister can go to an EU Council meeting and be surprised about anything. Either she has cloth ears and is not listening to the people around her or the people around her are doing a really bad job of intelligence gathering on the lay of the land. I suspect Mrs May is discovering very late in the day that negotiating a mult-lateral deal involves a bit more than painting herself-in with a lot of red lines and then just “being a difficult woman”. She now has 4 weeks in which to show remarkable agility or be crushed under the weight of a botched Brexit of her own making. And human decency dictates that she should allow the British people to decide if they want to be crushed with her.
The problem is, as we’ll get to in a bit, that the odds of a referendum are zero.
As reader TheScream wrote:
It is astonishing to see that the UK still does not accept that the EU doesn’t want it to go on principle more than for practical reasons. May and the others cling to the notion that without Great Britain, the EU will collapse or something. This is the same nation that has been foot-dragging on everything about Europe and slagging off the continent at every turn while pretending they are a Great Power and the BFF of the US. Trump does not care about Great Britain unless he needs some sort of zoning permission for his gold course, in which case he will cut a deal on trade or arms with May.
As reader disillusionized put it, “I think the bridges have been burned, now it’s surrender or revocation that’s left to the UK, or stepping off the cliff edge.”
One might wonder, why would the EU statesmen blow up May now, with a big Tory party conference a mere week away?
First is that these leader have lost patience with the UK refusal to listen to what they have been saying, in every way they possibly could, and the UK has refused to acknowledge. How many ways can you say “No cherry picking” and still have the person on the other side ignore you? So one way to see this is that the EU is really talking to the UK and whether May stays or goes is of little matter to them since she’s proven to be so rigid and incapable.
Second is they may recognize, as we have, that the odds of a crash out are very high, and the best shot for avoiding that is for domestic and multinational companies to greatly increase pressure on the Government to take off the suicide bomb jacket. The problem is that it’s nine months late. UK businesses seem to be for the most part in denial as to how bad Brexit will be, and a lot of others who are not deluded seem to be of the “It would be so terrible that it won’t be allowed to happen” school. With the benefit of hindsight, Barnier erred in giving May the Joint Agreement concession last December on Ireland and allowing her to punt for a while. Had Barnier hung tough on the original Irish border deadline, he would have forced the crisis early enough that other trajectories would have been possible.
Third, and not that this is that positive an outcome, May could well remain as PM. Despite the Ultras regularly threatening to topple May, it’s not clear they really want the job, but are instead using the threat to keep her from going wobbly. And May has said repeatedly that no deal is better than a bad deal. She can quote herself to shore up her bona fides with the hard core Brexit faction. Or to put it another way, the EU now sees not much difference in having May versus the big scary Ultras in charge. May’s unworkable plans (and critically, her rejection of the Irish backstop) make her functionally no different from the Ultras in terms of ability to get a withdrawal agreement done.
Fourth, the EU leaders may have come, either intellectually or on gut instinct, to our conclusion that a crash out is close to inevitable. UK punters were putting the odds at 62% this week. We had them at 80% before today and we thought that was being too optimistic. With May digging in on Checkers even after the stern EU messages, there’s not even a credible path for the UK to escape a crash out. So if a disorderly Brexit is inevitable, better to make that clear as soon as possible to give businesses some chance to plan.
Sadly, but not surprisingly given the press spin, the public reaction seems to be to pump for a hard Brexit. One Financial Times reader says the “most recommended” comments in the BBC were of the “just leave” variety.
As for the deus ex machina of a second referendum, fuggedaboutit. May has ruled it out. If the Ultras oust her, they certainly won’t initiate one. The Tories will not vote themselves out of office and DUP is unlikely to play spoiler (they have power now as essential to the Tories majority that they stand to lose in a new General Election). It’s not even clear a new referendum would produce a different outcome. And in any event, it’s too late. A referendum that followed the procedures takes a minimum of eight months (the LibDem’s campaign site set forth the timetable) and the Ultras would be guaranteed to challenge any process that cut corners.
So if you are in the UK, start stockpiling. Or find a way to be out of the UK for at least six months starting shortly before the Brexit date. It won’t be pretty.