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The UK press today appears to be trying to find happy potents in the entrails of the roadkill of this round of Brexit negotiations. May gave a speech to Parliament in which she didn’t blame the EU for the collapse of the talks, after a week of breathless “breakthrough” rumors. Since her man Dominic Raab was the one to reject the latest draft text, which had apparently been agreed at the negotiator level, it would be hard to pin this last minute deadlock on the EU, although I should not underestimate the willingness of Fleet Street to amplify jingoistic messaging from No. 10.
However, May, while insisting a deal could still be had, also maintained that an Irish border backstop could only be a temporary measure. This is yet another retrade of deal terms; it’s at odds with the Joint Agreement she signed last December. Moreover, it is hard to see how the EU can give ground. No backstop or one that becomes void as of a date certain means the UK could try to use it as a weapon in negotiations if it hits an impasse in its trade negotiations. The EU presumably recognizes this and wants to put the matter to bed, as it thought it had with the Joint Agreement.
We thought we had made a mistake on reading the “order of battle” issues, but perhaps in the end we hadn’t. We had initially read May after Salzburg as succeeding in getting the EU to drop its demand, which appeared to have been made in anger, that she hop to and show enough progress by October 18 or else. That interpretation looked all wet as the Government went into frantic negotiations mode, only to have Raab throw cold water on the UK presenting a final framework in October.
May is now apparently not only angling to have the EU keep negotiations open until November, but even hopes to have until December. From the Financial Times:
Theresa May will try to hold together her fractured cabinet on Tuesday by playing for time on Brexit, amid rising expectations that the timetable for finalising an exit deal could slip into December.
The prime minister sought to lower tensions on Monday ahead of an EU leaders’ summit on Brexit that starts on Wednesday. She told MPs that it was a time for “cool, calm heads” and insisted: “I don’t believe the UK and European Union are far apart.”
Instead of confronting her cabinet by trying to force through agreement on a Brexit withdrawal treaty ahead of the European Council, originally billed as a key moment in the negotiations, Mrs May has left important issues unresolved.
It’s not obvious why the EU should go along. Even if it were to plan only to go through the motions, it has seen May refuse to commit and even try to wriggle out of settled points too many times. The reason for the rough handling of May at Salzburg was likely not just a display of personal pique, but also collective frustration that she is not “agreement capable” and there’s no point in continuing this farce. Indeed, there are now large, looming costs. No one wanted to take a crash out as a serious possibility, so everyone is very far behind in preparation. The EU has deep enough bureaucracies that it has some hope of stitching up a lot of what it needs if it goes into overdrive now (that does not mean there still won’t be a very large amount of dislocation, but governments will have done much of what they can to reduce the pain). Continuing to talk to the UK if there really is no deal to be had sends all the wrong signals to EU officials and even more important, businesses. It’s hard to press them to get all hands on deck to prepare for a disorderly Brexit when talks are still underway. This may be one of the downsides of Barniers’ patience as a negotiator: he may not be willing or able to walk away from the table, yet some of his principals may want him to say things look unsolvable before they pull the plug.
And as for May having gamed all this out, the UK side has never exhibited strategic genius. This outcome is more likely the result of accident and error.1 At a minimum, May saw what we did: the DUP and the Ultras would oppose the plan her team had tentatively worked out with the EU, and she couldn’t begin to get enough votes from Labour or anywhere else to make up for their loss. A failure on a Withdrawal Agreement vote would almost certainly bring down her Government, if the DUP didn’t take it out and shoot it sooner by opposing her budget.2 As Financial Times reader Sean Citizen said in commments:
I’ve been reflecting self critically on the headline “Mrs May plays for time on Brexit Agreement”.
I have repeatedly accused Mrs May of inconsistency and at a superficial level, this is true. For example she has twice given the EU a written commitment to an all-weather backstop but now misrepresents her broken promise as a new demand by the EU.
But the headline is a reminder that, at a deeper level, she has actually been quite consistent in her approach. Playing for time seems to be the only trick in her playbook. And in relentlessly playing for time, she is willing to ignore scuples and logic. To gain time, the Prime Miniter will promise anything to anybody, break any commitment, ignore or misrepresent inconvenient truths.
And for the umpteenth time, I’m reminded of Einstein’s definition of madness: repeating the same experiment and expecting a different result. Various commentators are speculating that the Prime Minister is pursuing some complex and subtle strategy. I prefer Occam’s razor and choose the simplest explanation.
Mrs May has been grossly overpromoted and is completely out of her depth. There is no grand strategy. There aren’t even any short term tactics. Unless she is removed from office, the hapless Mrs May will continue to aimlessly play for time, right up to when the bus hits the wall on the 29th March deadline – for the simple reason that she hasn’t a clue what else to do.
Finally, on another happy UK press idea of the day, that May’s upcoming speech Wednesday at the EU summit might open new paths up, I could explain why not, but Richard North has already done so with considerable vigor:
But there was no need to rest with the perception that the prime minister’s words were unreal. By any measure, they were beamed down from another planet, lacking corporeal form and unable to exist in this atmosphere.
This is the woman who, just days before the crucial European Council which is supposed to resolve the Brexit agreement, has watched her strategy crash and burn, with negotiations totally stalled and no likelihood of a deal this month.
And despite that, and all the background that goes with it, she stands up in the Commons and declares: “I continue to believe that a negotiated deal is the best outcome for the UK and for the European Union.
She then tells us that she continues to believe that such a deal is achievable, and that is the spirit in which she will continue to work with our European partners, then burbling somewhere in between about the EU wanting a backstop to a backstop…
The paper [the Guardian] has it that the prime minister is expected to plead with EU leaders to drop their Irish backstop proposal “at a make-or-break summit dinner on Wednesday night after seeking the support of members of her cabinet on Tuesday morning”.
After all this time, it still doesn’t understand that Mrs May will not be allowed to negotiate directly with EU Member States. If they hear Mrs May on Wednesday evening, then protocol demands that she is heard in silence, with no questions asked of her.
In that context, the Commission proposes and the Council disposes. There are no circumstances where Mrs May can short-cut the process and work round the established system. The best she can hope for is aa grudging resumption of talks once the Council is over.
In the 2015 bailout negotiations, the Greek government knew it was playing a game of chicken with the Troika and overestimated how much damage it could do by defaulting, and thus the odds that the creditors would relent. But the government was inexperienced and Greece was prostrated by austerity and desperate to break free of rule by the IMF. It was a high-stakes gamble but Greece only had poor choices.
By contrast, it would be hard to chart a course for Brexit worse than the one the UK has followed. And of course, the so-called leaders responsible for this mess will suffer far less than UK and EU citizens.
1 From Frank Herbert’s Dune: “Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error.”
2 As we’ve said, it isn’t clear that failing to pass a budget would force new elections under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The Government of course argues not but my sense is that this is an untested question. UK readers are encouraged to pipe up.
I also very much discount the idea that the DUP could be bought off. The leaders all survived the Troubles. Foster’s father nearly died and she had a close call when a school bus she was on was targeted. You can deplore their aims, but they do seem to be willing to go down for their principles.