Brexit: Stuck

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Has Brexit gone so far down the rabbit hole of UK party politics that there is no coming out the other side? Brexit is fracturing the UK’s leading parties, yet there doesn’t seem to be any way for the UK to move forward with the project, nor does there seem to be any politically viable path for the UK to back out by revoking Article 50.

I hate to seem simplistic, but consider some important developments:

The local elections exposed not only massive dissatisfaction with the Tories, but unhappiness with Labour too. With both major parties losing support because neither one can come up with a position on Brexit that will bridge the significant differences among their members, the UK is becoming even less capable of negotiating credibly or competently with the EU.

Thanks to the EU Parliament elections, Nigel Farage is baack…giving Leave extremism a new lease on life. Determined minorities often punch above their weight. Look at the gun lobby and the anti-abortionists in the US. Farage is a mediagenic fount of plausible-sounding but wrongheaded Brexit soundbites. The UK press and public already believe too many false things on the topic of Brexit, and Farage will make sure they take up even more bad ideas. As Chris Grey put it last week:

With the launch of the Brexit Party, a profoundly dangerous and dishonest argument – which has been doing the rounds in Brexiter circles virtually since they won the Referendum – is now being advanced with renewed and growing vigour. Its strength is its simplicity, indeed at the moment it is the entirety of the new party’s pitch: Brexit has been betrayed and democracy thwarted by a remainer parliament and a remainer Prime Minister. It’s a claim which is also, of course, made ad nauseam by Tory Brexiters, and seems to account at least in part for Labour’s continuing Brexit muddle.

Judging by current opinion polls, this argument resonates with, at least, 27% of voters. That figure matters both because it is quite large – certainly enough to bring significant success in the European elections – but also because it is considerably smaller than the 52% who voted to leave the EU. So it probably represents the hard core of the Brexit vote, and consists of people who, most likely, are impervious to any arguments against the ‘democracy betrayed’ argument.

Even if the Brexit Party fails to attract more hard-core Brexit supporters, it will re-energize that faction. And since the press loves conflict, these radicals are likely to get more than their fair share of air time.

The press and MPs continue to appear utterly confused about timing and process. All the debate about a customs union, labor rights, and other hard v. soft Brexit issues are moot until the UK passes the Withdrawal Agreement. Those issues come under the non-binding Political Declaration and won’t be negotiated in any detail or seriousness until the UK is out of the EU, as in has entered into the transition period. When May is finally displaced, which will happen by this December at the latest, there’s no reason to think that even any positions staked out in the Political Declaration will stick.

And also recall another point made only very intermittently in Brexit commentary…if you thought the EU played the UK during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The post-transition trade deal will be vastly more complex and hard fought.

Again, to stress what ought to be obvious, no passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, no going forward. The EU has made clear it’s not ceding ground on the backstop. So despite all of the chatter among MPs about Norway and a customs union and other bright-sounding ideas for preserving frictionless trade, the UK will remain in a Brexit zombie state until it approves the Withdrawal Agreement.

Yes, the UK could in theory revoke Article 50. But have you noticed that that remains a taboo topic in the media? And on the referendum front, the barmy abdication of Parliamentary duty called a confirmatory referendum (of the Political Declaration + Withdrawal Agreement?) which won’t open up any new options, is now competing with a Second Referendum, which is the only viable political path to get to an Article 50 revocation. But even if MPs had been willing to back a Second Referendum, the EU didn’t grant a long enough extension to allow that to occur.

As Richard North pointed out:

We are still left with the task of negotiating the real deal – the future relationship with the European Union.

But, if we get the full two-year extension, that brings us to the end of 2022, while the next general election is scheduled to be held on 5 May of the same year. That means that the final deal will not be agreed by this government.

Assuming that Labour has a chance of winning, the next government could be led by Mr Corbyn and it could be him that sets the final terms.

Unfortunately, there’s another way of reading the timetable: that the UK is very likely to be “not agreement capable.” The Tories are coming apart as a party. 2022 is likely to bring a Labour win or yet another hamstrung coalition government….which the Fixed Term Parliaments Act perversely would shore up. So an incoming government could tear up substantial portions of a deal underway when the time to stitch up new terms and get the needed legislative approvals would be impossibly tight.

North regards the timetable as unworkable even before considering our scenario of a new government seeking to reopen deal points, and focuses instead on what difficult trade agreement negotiations with the EU would mean for a 2022 general election:

Unless something close to a miracle is concocted, the realisation might begin to dawn that, whatever is on offer, it won’t get close to satisfying UK needs for “frictionless” trade with the EU, and nor will it prevent the backstop kicking in.

More prosaically, since the timescale is unrealistically short, we may find ourselves in a situation analogous to where we have been, where there is insufficient time to conclude a deal – any deal, and we are looking at a new version of a cliff-departure with no working agreements in place. The difference is that there will be no last-minute time extension.

What the electoral consequences of this might be are perhaps easier to predict than a more stable scenario. We can assume that, in this case, the Tories will be hammered for their failure to bring a deal to fruition.

The downside is that Labour won’t be able to offer anything better, leaving both parties facing a potential train wreck….

The cold, hard facts of this situation are that there is no possible scenario on the books that could give the UK the frictionless trade it needs to be able to function. The Norway option, as such, has only ever been a partial answer. It is the raft of additional bilateral agreements, on top of customising the EEA Agreement, which will be needed to make for a functional arrangement.

In terms of VAT, data sharing, security cooperation and participation in EU agencies, any such agreements would take the UK into unknown territory, where it would be asking for a degree of integration and functional rights that under current conditions apply only to fully-fledged EU members.

Not only is there no incentive for the EU to go that far, there is every reason for it to hold back, having said many times that it cannot allow a departing state to enjoy the same benefits as its members.

On that basis, the UK is at some time going to have to bite the bullet, with the realisation that there will be substantial and unavoidable barriers to trade with the EU. It is inescapable that this will put UK firms at a commercial disadvantage, and slow down the physical process of moving goods to the continent.

This may provoke a rebellious mood in the electorate at large – if the predicament is properly understood – which may inject a further element of unpredictability into the electoral equation.

Will the EU throw the UK yet another lifeline on October 31? On the one hand, the EU talked tough before and then wimped out. As we’ve said, interpersonal dynamics matter a great deal in negotiations. Merkel even in her diminished state is still powerful and is also cautious. Macron is a blowhard and reports of the April summit give the impression that he overplayed his hand. The EU, having fallen into its “kick the can” bad habit, would find doing that again to be the path of least resistance.

On the other, EU leaders told the UK not to waste time, yet here we are, nearly a full month into the extension, and no progress has been made. Michel Barnier gave a speech on EU issues a couple of weeks ago and barely mentioned Brexit, and when he did, it was clear that the EU regards Brexit as almost a legacy issue, that the EU feels it has more pressing issues to tackle.

But EU officials probably recognize emotionally, and perhaps even intellectually, that they’ve been put in the perverse position of acting in a guardianship or custodial role as far as the UK and Brexit are concerned. The UK ruling classes have made clear that are they not only too divided to make decisions and binding commitments, but they also lack the comprehension of how trade deals and the EU work to make sound choices even if they were able to get out of their own underwear. It’s as if they were dealing with a schizophrenic, or alternatively, a failed state.

The fact that the EU is not negotiating with anything resembling an equal, but a party incapable of managing its affairs on this topic creates a bizarre dynamic. In a one-off trade, you’d expect the advantaged party to take the rube to the cleaners. But the EU is and will remain in a relationship with the UK. The EU has been put in the uncomfortable position of making decisions for the UK that the UK should be making for itself, or at least have the awareness to recognize that it’s dumped problems on the EU’s lap and isn’t even attempting to sort them out.

Now there is a potential way out. Richard Smith points out that a convulsive political realignment could allow centrist interests on Brexit to align and come up with a coherent vision on Brexit, be it remain or a not-too-hard departure. The fracturing of the Tories would be the start of that process. But will the EU sit pat and wait for the UK to sort itself out, particularly since it’s possible that that process could take a generation and/or still not lead to a realistic posture on Brexit?

I’d love to be wrong, but I don’t see how the UK gets out of its Brexit quagmire.

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  1. vlade

    You know, perversely it looks like Brexit did make the UK a vassal state of the EU, where UK issues are decided in Brussels. But not because Brussels would want to, but because the UK is incapable, and Brussels is too soft to tell them f-off.

    1. Brian (another one they call)

      and might we wonder if that was the desired outcome for the PM as a devout remainer? The EU needs the UK to be a vassal state very badly. Unity must be shown else the peons will grow restless in the other member states that matter (northern EU). The UK voted to leave confounding everyone. But now a majority government has acted to overturn the will of the people and has since lost the majority. Did the UK just discard democracy?

        1. Anders K

          I am suspecting it is someone’s brain on Brexit.

          I would have to quibble with vlade and point out that Brexit is not an alien invader, here to take all the frictionless trade and then abscond with the crown jewels (that’s what you have Boris for!) but something that arose from inside the UK (with a helping hand from the media and politicians, admittedly).

          I’d also use the term “ward” rather than “vassal state” because from the outside it looks more that the UK has gone mental, and have to have decisions taken by someone of sound mind rather than the gibbering patient. “Norway option! With Canada Plus Plus! And all the unicorns you’d want to ride…

  2. none

    What about a referendum to merge Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? The Good Friday Agreement authorizes such a thing. Is it really a sure bet that NI would want to stay in the UK at this point?

    1. Clive

      A multi-year process which isn’t, therefore, amenable to assisting with Brexit. The Republic would need to set out a transition plan covering things like assuming fiscal liabilities from the U.K. (or benefiting from a fiscal transfer), conversation of assets into euros as NI would have to adopt the euro (NI citizens have sterling-denominated assets and liabilities, some short-term e.g. credit cards or revolving lines of credit but some very long term like residential mortgages), residency rights, passports and visa requirements, militarily assets (many not operating but still crown estates), territorial waters — and much else.

      I don’t see any of that getting unpicked in less than 5 years. Quite possibly 10.

      Oh, and then there’s the small matter of the sectarian divide.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      There is provision for a poll in the GFA, but its entirely at the discretion of the British Government (or to be precise, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland). There is very little chance that they’d want to stir things up by having such a referendum, and in any event the DUP would turn against them if they did.

      A referendum under current circumstances would most likely lose – that’s why Republicans are not agitating for it. The demographics point to one being one in 10 years or so, but its quite possible a bad Brexit will make a united Ireland look far more attractive to the middle classes in NI, especially if there is a deal for EU financial support (its estimated it would cost between 2-5 billion euro a year).

  3. PlutoniumKun

    I can’t see any movement at all until the autumn – the elections and the summer break will make any sort of political movement impossible. The negotiations between May and Corbyn are an obvious nonsense, there is no way either could get an agreement past their parties even if they could come to one.

    The Brexit Party will undoubtedly make things even worse. Its a huge threat to the Tories and they are desperately spinning away already the spanking they will get from the electorate (just look how little real damage their local election losses did, its already forgotten). Farage will raise whole herds of unicorns and send them thundering over the horizon.

    Labour is in a complete mess. They are even more divided than the Tories, and the divide is in many ways even deeper. The public sense this, and together with the relentless media attacks on Corbyn, its hard to see them coming close to an overall majority in the next election. The only beneficiaries will be the far right and the smaller nationalist parties, and the Lib Dems and Greens.

    And to make things even worse, if possible, the October deadline coincides with the party conference season. Anyone who thinks that these will lead to a consensus way forward… well… that will not happen.

    So if anything, the chaos and divisions could be even worse by the time Hallowe’en comes around. It will be entirely clear that nobody will have a majority if there is an election, and no deal can be passed. Nobody is seriously engaging with withdrawing A.50 or another referendum. So, it will be tossed back into the EU’s hands.

    I honesty have no idea what the EU will do then. I wonder if they will look at creating some sort of purgatory status for the UK, as a sort of protectorate, on the basis that there is no possibility of the UK either formally exiting, or coming back into the EU. The UK will become a bit like Puerto Rico to the US, just without the nice weather. But then they will have to deal with a mob of Faragists in the EU Parliament, and that might result in a consensus to cut the ties.

    The only way out of the problem that will make sense to people is to cut the ties entirely. I think the Tories will eventually decide that its better just to go, and damn the consequences (especially if an Ultra manages to dislodge May in the Party Conference, something I think is quite likely). Many in the EU will agree.

    I’m trying to think of any historical precedent for this. Those that come to mind were epic conflicts over specific policies – the Corn Laws in the UK or slavery in the US. But those had specific end points, and everyone knew the side they were on. That doesn’t really seem to apply with Brexit. Its a medusa of a problem, every time one head is given the Game of Throne treatment, another three pop up. For now, the UK keeps sailing on, like a ship that’s lost its captain and crew, but still has full sails up and a waterproof hull. But one day some rocks will come on the horizon. Its anyones guess what happens then.

    1. Clive

      The other bit of the works is, the more the EU27 are minded to simply shove the U.K. to the exit and hope the door doesn’t hit them on the way out — which Macron could have done on April 12th but didn’t, for reasons which have never been adequately explained, certainly not that I’ve read — without anything which might constitute a Managed No Deal e.g. a 3-5 year timeframe (which was determined by the schedule required rather than yet more arbitrary deadlines) and a mutually acceptable gradualism hand-back of competencies, then…

      … the more incentive there is for the U.K. to adopt a line of we’ll Remain Under Protest and veto anything and everything which constitutes closer integration, seek to roll back such integration as has been achieved (which might not be especially successful but would be a gorilla tactic that absorbed a lot of momentum) and dashed any hopes of the EU doing anything that required a new treaty (and that era must be coming because if the EU has nothing better to do than faff around outlawing Daylight Saving Time, it’s probably running out of meaningful things to do with the powers it has) because it would be, for a generation in the U.K. political environment a third rail issue to try to get any EU treaty through Parliament. And then…

      … the more incentive there is for the EU27 to have a good think about how much or how little it wants to contend with this possibility.

      1. vlade

        Weren’t some people arguing that that the UK lost sovereignty and could not affect the EU in any way (even when it did have functioning representation on the Council), that the closer EU integration on the way to the EU superstate was inevitable etc. etc?

        1. Clive

          Yes, indeed. But being able to spoil Macron’s fun is one thing. Being able to decide, unimpeded, what sort of fun you want to have yourself, (or even if you want to be deciding you don’t want to have any fun at all) is another.

          1. vlade

            Sure, but I was under the impression that he belief was that no-one except Germans and French were allowed to have any fun, and we know where THAT leads.

            What fun we might have on our own was shown to us by one Mr. Pompeo. Whose name does sound fun, to be honest.

            Although one Kim could also show the Way..

    2. vlade

      I think you mean hydra, not medusa :). Although whoever looks at Brexit mess in detail does turn into stone.

      Making fun aside, I agree with you that the only clear path forward now is no-deal. I hate to say it, as it’s going to hurt a lot of people, for a very long time, but anything else is just extremely unstable (compared to no deal with is just very unstable).

      One thing that could turn it is if TM manages to get a ranked vote in the Parliament, forcing a decision. She was making noises like that before, but the problem is no-one really wants it, as all sides can see a very possible scenario where they lose.

      That said, if Farage’s party gets most MEPs, I don’t think May will have much choice if she wants to stop them being seated (and having voice). Now, the ultimate surprise though would be if the vote-tactically campaign (which is asking people to pool remain vote in their area, running suggestions on who would be the best to vote in their region) managed to get through and the remain parties got most MEPs. I think it unlikely, but not impossible. Last EU election turnout was 16m. If all the remain-petition voters (6m) voted tactically (which includes dumping Labour), that’d win it. So we’ll see..

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Ah, its all Greek to me…

        I think if they organised tactically, Remainers could form a bloc and use that to push their case if they won a majority of seats. Unfortunately there is no evidence whatever that they will do this, and most likely Labour will sabotage any such attempt by running spoiler candidates.

      2. RBHoughton

        Brexit is turning out to be like learning to ride a bike or swimming. At first you don’t know how to do it but you summon up courage and launch yourself into the unknown. Fingers crossed it works out. Brave New World method of doing politics

    3. papabaz

      Do not be over reliant on the Guardian’s view of either Mr Corbyn or the state of Labour politics.

      Check what Mr Corbyn said at the launch of Labour’s European election campaign today and you will see that he has clearly stated Labour’s position on Europe and his conclusion: “The view we put forward, the party conference put this forward, the national executive agreed this, [was] that we should include the option of having a ballot on a public vote on the outcome of the talks and negotiations on what we’re putting forward. I would want that to be seen as a healing process, and bringing this whole process to a conclusion.

      “Nothing is easy in this. But our essential message has to be to bring people together and that’s the basis on which we’ve approached both what we’ve done in parliament and in the negotiations itself.”

      It would appear to make a nonsense of NC’s view of the politics of Brexit and of Mr Corbyn’s personal stance on this issue. As I said in my post of 15 May 2018, which may or may not have been moderated out:

      “Corbyn has read the runes and his position makes absolute sense. Some of his MPs lack party discipline and will rebel and the EEA option will pass; similarly, the second referendum will go through; Brexit will fall apart; Corbyn, as a longstanding opponent of the EU will argue that the EEA option will leave the UK as a ruletaker and not a rulemaker which is against his democratic instincts, and he will reluctantly feel forced to accept the democratic demand that one option on the ballot paper must be to retain the status quo, and he will ensure that is so. Very, very reluctantly. Democracy is never one vote, once.”

      I am more certain than Yves or most other NC contributors that Mr Corbyn knows where the game must end and, as a political operator of the very first class, will ensure that it does. He also knows where the power lies and, as the most skillful and persuasive electoral politician of the last two generations, will obtain it – for the benefit of the many, not the few.

    4. Aarond

      It comes down to cosmopolitans vs. nationalists. It’s what divides Lab, Corbyn is at least a lite nationalist (in the sense that he believes trade should benefit Britons and that subsidized industries eg British Steel/British Rail are acceptable) yet half his party are staunch cosmopolitan Blairtes. The Tories are unable to exploit this division as they are the party of cosmopolitan capital, the banker party. Enter the hard nationalist Nigel Farange.

      Anyway, this is part of a larger global decoupling. Entrenched globalist bankers have no idea how to handle nationalists today in the same way monarchs and aristocrats had no idea how to handle it in the early 20th century. All the externalities caused by totally free trade are now coming back to rip the Tories asunder while half of Lab afraid of going left. The end result is an inevitable Brexit, likely a crash-out in October or something messier under an Ultras-influenced government.

  4. jackiebass

    I don’t know much about British politics. My observation is May made a tactical mistake by totally controlling the negotiations. She should have involver the House Of Commons in the process early on. Not involving them created a climate where you had too many conflicting views about what Brexit should be. She tried the tactic of waiting until the last moment for a vote , hoping she could get votes from some that normally wouldn’t approve. This tactic didn’t work so now they are at an impasse. It doesn’t look like anything will change until May goes . Unfortunately probably they will have to go back and start all over.

    1. Kfish

      Unfortunately, under the Westminster system it’s the executive (May, the ministers and the civil service) that has to negotiate treaties and agreements with other countries. The legislature (Parliament) then approves them and makes them British law. The assumption is that the Prime Minister, as leader of the governing party in Parliament, has enough clout to get their agreements voted through.

      Possibly May could have done better by agreeing one small point, going home to get it approved, going back for the next, and so on. Unfortunately the EU’s timeline of 2016/2017 said that the Irish question had to be decided first which was unthinkable for a government dependent on the DUP’s support. Also, the other parts of the Brexit debate are so intertwined and conditional on each other that it might have been impossible to agree on one issue without guarantees on another.

  5. John A

    On the subject of utterly deluded, yesterday in parliament Theresa May raised the subject of the Liverpool soccer team, that against very long odds, beat Barcelona to reach the final of the European club soccer tournament, having been trailing by a large score after the first match in Barcelona. May actually said she could do a ‘Liverpool’ and go to Europe and beat those dastardly Europeans against all odds! She is still stuck in the the deal can be renogotiated stage. Nothing changes.
    Positions are now set in stone. Logic and reason have gone out of the window.

  6. John

    In all fairness, most of England was anticipating the birth of Prince Harry and the American woman’s baby. I’m positive that from here on, Labor and Conservatives will make a smashing deal.

    1. vlade

      Well, there’s one more Royal who could take the one for the team. Not that I wanted it, but she is quite old..

  7. Olivier

    Did anyone think there would be be progress? I’m being sarcastic of course.

    1. Clive

      Nothing wrong with sarcasm! And, not being sarcastic, but sarcasm is not unwarranted, we’ve been dreadful and pretty hopeless in almost every aspect of predictions. I’m tempted to pop back in time a year ago and post a comment here (or there) that, in a year’s time, the U.K. would be on not its first, not its second but its third Exit Day date — and with no-one explicit in ruling out yet more extensions.

      I’d have been roundly told I was completely out of my tree. Legislation constraints this-, EU27 unwavering hard deadlines that-, and crash out inevitable the-other. Heck, I would have reply-commented to myself that I was talking totally implausible rubbish, there was no imaginable theory that would lead to such a conclusion, no facts to support it and lots of incontrovertible evidence to completely kibosh it. I’d have said I was drunk on unicorn pee-pee.

      But here we all are.

      While I’m ‘fessing up to being a kissing cousin of the Village Idiot, I was totally convinced and would have had no truck with any counterfactual nonsense to the contrary that the Withdrawal Agreement would inevitably be signed because “the markets would panic and the U.K. government would have no choice”.

      Where was my brain? With the benefit of hindsight (actually, proper analysis, but I’ll let myself off with an “if only I’d known…”) it was obviously not going to work out that way, because, if there were to be “market panic” — which is more explicitly described as short selling of sterling assets — then the U.K. government would indeed sign the Withdrawal Agreement (or rescind Article 50). At which point, the shorts would be terminally burned. But of course, no speculator would ever be the dumb money and maintain a short position because they’d be intensely vulnerable to the political risk that the U.K. could pull the rug from under them at any point. There weren’t any resource, timing, external, legal etc. constraints on the U.K. government’s acting. Just pure political fallout. Which costs the U.K. government absolutely nothing so is precisely zero disincentive to the U.K. government’s decision-making.

      So the whole “markets would panic…” dynamic is self-extinguishing. As soon as it gets going, the very forces which it threatens to invoke get turned around to be an incentive to undermine it.

      Therefore, from this moment, I’m ruling nothing out and nothing in. It’s all up for grabs as far as I can see. Anything could happen.

      1. Synoia

        Ranked, there are three and only three choices:


        We are in, and will continue, in Limbo.

        The nature of the tiebreaker is completly unknown. However it can comtinue until the UK stops sending money to the EU.

      2. David

        Be fair to yourself, Clive! I don’t think you (and we) have been making predictions so much as identifying what seemed to be the overwhelmingly likely outcomes, and extremely powerful influences on events. Much of what has been said here has indeed come to pass. The problem is that we were all making assumptions that were quite reasonable, but turned out to be wrong, because they were over-generous to the political system and those in it. If we had started from the assumption that the government would show itself to be incompetent beyond belief, that parliament would be all over the place, that the government would set out with the apparent objective of upsetting and alienating the 27, that May would be obsessed with internal party management to the exception of all else, that British negotiating tactics would be amateurish beyond belief …. and so on, then we might have predicted the current chaos more accurately. But who would have believed, in 2016, that those sorts of assumptions were valid? I must admit, I did unconsciously assume a certain minimum level of competence on the part of the British, which in turn led me to assume that we would not be in the current unbelievable situation.
        I agree with your last sentence. I think we now have to accept that no conceivable outcome, however bizarre and unlikely, can definitively be ruled out. For example:
        Withdrawal of Art 50 notification. I’ve always thought this had a non-zero possibility of happening, simply from exhaustion and blockage in the political system. Yes, of course it would start a riot, but I can’t see any other outcome that won’t.
        Jettisoning the Withdrawal Agreement. Yes, the existing one can’t be renegotiated, but there are precedents for junking a draft treaty which will never be adopted and starting again. If we ever have a competent government again, that is a possibility.
        Indefinite extension of Art 50. A way of making the problem go away. Yes, lots of people won’t like it, but lots of people won’t like any other outcome.
        Collapse of the UK political system and its replacement by something else. Start again from zero.

        Yes, these are all unlikely. But so was the current situation a couple of years ago.
        I still think a crash-out is unlikely except by accident, but I can’t say what I think are the factor which will prevent it: again, we just don’t know. This is a case where the number of variables, the number of potential interactions and the level of stupidity makes any serious prediction impossible.

        1. ChrisPacific

          I think maybe the reason we all missed the boat (on the EU’s willingness to grant extensions) was because we got stuck in thinking of the negotiation dynamic as a closed system, and looking at everything in the context of leverage. In practice, other norms come into play in extreme situations and can interfere in unusual ways. For example, if you are negotiating with somebody and they suddenly decide to open a vein, collapse, and start bleeding out at your feet, you don’t say “Aha! My opponent is in a weakened position! This is a chance to drive home my victory!” No, you call an ambulance, render what assistance you can, and put negotiations on hold until the crisis is over. Even if you are the world’s least altruistic person and would like nothing more than to put the boot in, you do it anyway if anyone is watching, at least if you care about the judgement of your peers.

          1. Oregoncharles

            hey – I predicted the EU would grant extensions, or at least be much more forgiving than they were indicating. Powerful interests in the EU have much to lose – maybe less than Britain, but still enough to be motivating. And a derelict Britain right off shore would be a problem.

          2. Clive

            And plus, the EU27 insistence, or, at least, it started insisting originally, that a five year task (No Deal Brexit, given how useless the U.K. government is, it’s more realistic to say six or seven) should be competed in two years or else a Deal, which wouldn’t pass the U.K. legislature, get signed, or, finally, a No Deal Brexit which would have the EU27 shoot itself in the foot over the Irish border were the only options on the table.

            Cue, then, the U.K. making a complete and utter mess. And everyone now stands around, tutting, saying oh, gee golly gosh, aren’t the U.K. government awful, just awful. Yes, they are, but what did the EU27 expect to happen?

            It’s like asking me to make a cup of tea, a task which I can accomplish quite happily and not without a modicum of skill, but I have to do it in two minutes from a standing start. I need about five minutes to do the job properly. If I complain and say, oh, well, I’ll need a little more time than that, someone tells me “rules based kitchen” and that they have already stared the timer, so I’d better get cracking. Suffice to say, there’d be tea, milk, water, teaspoons everywhere, I’d be in a total flapdoodle, possibly getting a little cross, and, when the two minutes was up, I’d present you with a very mediocre and inadequate cup of tea. Or a pile of broken crockery. If you then proceed to tell me, somewhat superciliously, if I’m going to make such a muck up of it all, then, in the interests of all concerned, I can have another minute, I’d tell you exactly what I thought of you and your allegedly infinite competence.

            1. vlade

              You’re being WAAAY to generous to the UK govt.

              IMO it was more like EU saying “you ring a bell, and then you got to make a drink in two minutes. And then we can start talking”.

              A sensible person would decide what drink to make before it rung the bell, and prepared all it needed, knowing the time limit. I can happily make a good cup of tea in less than two minutes if I have all the things I need by hand.

              Of course, when you’re run by people who say that doing an equivalent of tea ceremony in two minutes flat is the easiest thing in the world, stuff goes out of the window..

              Oh, and I bet you that the EU saying “we won’t talk until we had your drink” would have gone out of window pretty quick too. Few people can really keep silent like that, especially if the other side keep saying “Do I think a bit of a lemon in it would work? Or maybe honey?”

              1. Clive

                If I recall correctly, the EU27 said they wouldn’t put out the tea, milk or mugs until they’d started the timer (when the U.K. said “go!”). So preparation time was artificially constrained and curtailed.

                And then the EU27 wouldn’t give the U.K. a teaspoon until it had agreed that the milk must be served in one of those special little creamer jugs shaped like a cow, not the one which the U.K. had brought with it. The U.K. complained that this wasn’t in the Treaty for the Functioning of the Kitchen, but the EU27 retorted that that’s how it is, if the U.K. didn’t like it, it can sod off and have coffee like everyone else does. (that’s my lamer than lame Backstop analogy, which is a verifiable crime on the English language for which I sincerely apologise).

                Of course, if the U.K. didn’t even check the kettle was working, then it was hardly blameless.

                1. ChrisPacific

                  I think the simile has had about all it can take by now. But I found it quite amusing nonetheless.

                  (The problem with imagery-based analogies for Brexit is that it’s really too complicated for any of them to work quite right. I’ve formulated and discarded a number of them already).

                  1. Clive

                    I’ve been known to stretch a single simile through not just an original comment, but half a dozen subsequent replies.

                    I should be referred to the International Court of Justice, really, for subjecting innocent readers to cruel and unusual punishment.

                2. skippy

                  Ripping thread … if I might add I thought the whole thing started when the U.K. thought it needed to keep a finger in the E.U. pie whilst playing man in the middle w/ regard to the Atlantic treaty.

                  Sorta like blending high and middle altitude grown tea and hoping it befuddles the purists e.g. light delicate flavor only a fervent purist would appreciate or a more common [tm] brew.

                3. vlade

                  Given that the EU had no idea whether the UK wanted to run a Japanese tea ceremony or cream scones with English tea, how could they put anything out?

                  And, as I keep saying, it’s very very hard to keep silent, especially if you keep insisting the other party should start making the tea right now, but instead they keep murmurring and switching what it is they do.. Or, indeed, tell you that if you’re not getting the teaset, they’d better wait while you learn how to do crockery from scratch, and ask them whether they know of any good caoline mine nearby (which, I admit, is not easy if you have a bunch of your own kids yelling at you that the tea shold have been already served, in leaves if necessary. But that’s really your parenting problem).

            2. David

              Heaven knows what just happened – I tried to post and the site disappeared, taking my comment with it. Apologies if a slightly different text turns up later. I really need to remember to make a copy of my comments.
              I was saying that with only one cup of coffee so far this morning I didn’t feel capable of surfing on the metaphorical wave.
              But I think we need to remember that in politics there are very seldom good solutions, only varieties of bad ones. So political choices are often made to minimise damage and negative consequences, rather than because the chosen option is objectively good. It’s often the option that the largest minority of those taking the decision can live with.
              The mistake that people made was to treat the question of an extension as though it was self-contained. So if you ask “will the EU grant another extension to this incompetent bunch of crooks and shysters in the knowledge that they won’t make good use of it and that in a few months we’ll be back where we are now?” the answer is clearly “no.” But if you then ask “shall we let the UK crash out of the EU with the attendant economic and political damage to the Union and do we as national leaders want to be forever remembered as letting it happen?” then the answer is “no” as well. In the end, the EU chose what it thought was the less painful and unattractive of the two alternatives. This is why I consistently argued that extension should not be ruled out as an option.
              (Insert tea-related metaphor here)

        2. vlade

          Oh, I assumed total political incompetence (I’m on record on this, even here on NC before the referendum. it was the reason I voted remain).

          But I also assumed sterling crisis which still hasn’t happened – and now I don’t thikn it will until no deal becomes obviously unavoidable. And I assumed the EU would know that uncertainty is actually worse than no-deal (no-deal forces actions, and eventually resoliutions. What we have now forces nothing).

          1. skippy

            Imagine a scenario where Nashiean – McNamara Game theory meets its enviable conclusion on a long enough time line.

          2. Robert Dudek

            EU is hoping for Brexit exhaustion and a quiet cancellation of the whole thing. Hence the kicking the can down the road strategy.

  8. Christopher Herbert

    “Not only is there no incentive for the EU to go that far, there is every reason for it to hold back, having said many times that it cannot allow a departing state to enjoy the same benefits as its members.” Outside of Germany, I don’t see any of the EU members benefiting from membership. If you look at various metrics, from unemployment to debt, to infrastructure, the EU has arguably been largely a net negative.

    1. Ataraxite

      Such things are impossible to say, because noone can say what would have happened to countries that joined the EU if they hadn’t. Perhaps Greece would have still had a debt crisis, but instead of being dictated to by the Troika, it could have had an Argentina-style radical currency devaluation of the drachma. Who knows what would have happened in Italy or Spain or Portugal?

      But despite your subjective belief that the EU has been “largely a net negative”, polls consistently show significant majority support for the EU in every country (except the UK). Perhaps the public of these countries don’t understand how bad the EU is for them?

    2. GR

      In the eyes of most EU citizens, the Union is first a guarantor of peace and second an economic institution. Europe is now in its longest stretch of peace in 500 years. From that perspective, the EU has unquestionably been a net positive

      1. Olivier

        Attributing our long stretch of peace to the EU is a case of dressing up coincidences as causation. Europe has been relatively quiet for 70 years for two reasons:
        1) the sheer mind-boggling size of the last bout of killing and destruction (I count both world wars as a single war with a pause in between): you could say the dragon needed to rest while he digested
        2) the presence of a powerful overseer: the US, willing and able (Europe was de facto under US occupation until at least the German reunification) to knock heads if things threatened to descend into chaos again
        The EU had little to do with it. Incidentally, 70 years is about the lifespan of a generation now, which means the last people to have known WWII are dying. Things may therefore be about to heat up again slowly.

        1. Oregoncharles

          Actually, they already are.

          Yes – those who actually remember WWII are either gone or going. And the Euro could easily become a cause of hostilities.

  9. DualCit

    Is there a possibility that the resolution of Brexit will be no resolution? The UK continuously asks for extensions, and the EU automatically grants them. UK pols could spin this as a clever hair-trigger mechanism to increase UK leverage in EU matters, a strong wake-up call to the EU that will end business as usual, etc. In this scenario, nobody has to decide anything, everyone goes back to business and the UK effectively calls the whole thing off without actually doing so. Leavers won’t be happy, but with clever spin and enough passage of time an exhausted nation agrees to disagree and just moves on.

  10. Chris Smith

    Is there really any viable option but to revoke the Article 50 notice at this point? It looks to me that remain is the plurality position with each exit option each commanding some amount of minority support. I guess we learned that “leave the EU” is not in itself an actual position because there is no consensus on how to do so.

    1. Clive

      Yes, that would work. For about five minutes. The Brexit Party is polling at 30% according to the more recent opinion polls. Even allowing some decay, a quarter of the population is not going to just pack up and go home. Sooner or later, we’d all be back here again. Under the U.K. parliamentary system, a majority government can be formed with 40% of the popular vote. This means it can implement (yet another…) referendum.

      Perhaps after 5 or 10 years, everyone might really get permanently fed up with it. But not in the short to medium term.

  11. Pookah Harvey

    So how big a loss was it for Corbyn’s Labour in the local elections? Most of Labour losses seem to have gone to the Greens. Labour lost 63, Greens picked up 185. The Greens have more in common with Corbyn than Corbyn has with the Blairites. Or am I missing something?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      It depends on the area, but the analyses I’ve read indicate that the lost Labour vote went mostly to the LibDems, with some likely going to the Greens. Its not really clear if these were protest votes, strategic local voting patterns, or if they represent a genuine shift. Given that you would expect a shift to the opposition at this stage of the election cycle, I think the unavoidable conclusion is that many people left of the centre are abandoning Labour for the nearest alternative.

      Corbyn is a Labour tribalist, he refuses any deal with other parties, even if they are on the left. The Greens asked for a deal in the last general election whereby they would withdraw candidates who threatened to take votes from marginal Labour constituencies in exchange for a ‘free run’ in a number of seats. He said no. This is one reason why the UK is now ruled by the Tories propped up by the DUP instead of Corbyn propped up by Greens and SNP.

      1. vlade

        My take on local elections is:
        – a non-trivial number of Tory voters stayed at home. in EP, if they vote, they will go to Farage
        – Greens took votes from Labour (some intersection of strong left leaning, remain, do not like Corbyn)
        – LD took voters from Labour (some intersection of centrist, remain, do not like Corbyn)
        – UKIP got trounced

        While Tories remained the largest party, and Labour the second largest, there are two important considerations:
        – these were strongly leave voting areas. Some strong leave vote areas went to LD/Green. It’s unlikely to indicate that those areas are now remain (low turnout), but it does indicate that the remain voters in those areas feel lonely and WILL NOT vote Labour. If Labour has to win the leave seats to win GE, this means it lost already. See Sunderland, where Labour lost a many councilors to UKIP as it lost to LD+Greens. The only thing holding Sunderland MP seat to Labour is inability of Tory and UKIP working together IMO, but if Tories split fatally, or Brexit Party fields MP, it’s quite possible they will lose the seat. No matter how pro-Brexit the Labour candidate will be.

        – Sum of Green + LD councillors ( I cannot actually find how it translates to votes..) is 80% of Labour councillors. This is again bad news bears for Labour, as it’s not a dissimilar ratio to when Gordon Brown was badly trounced (and LD got 23% of the vote vs Labour’s 29%). LD is likely to become a much more of a swing party in seats – maybe not winning them, but likely causing Labour/Tory loss (and IMO there will be more Labour than Tory defectors to LD, especially in marginal leave seats, see above). People tend to forget that in the 2007 and 2010 elections LD got >20% of the vote, it’s only in 2015/2017 they got trounced to nothingness. I can easily imagine elections where the popular vote will be split almost evenly between Tories, Brexit Party (once Farage that’s going, UKIP’s done for IMO), Labour and LD. Which means that areas with low population/MP ratio that vote outside that bloc (Scotland/NI) get to be the kingmakers.

  12. Summer

    It really is a mess.
    The leader of the party that is most pro-remain is alleged to be pro-Brexit and the leader of the party of Brexit is alleged to be pro-remain.
    Just another episode of that hot new show: Crisis of Legitimacy

  13. DHG

    I am beginning to believe there will never be a Brexit, its too costly and would devastate the UK.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      There is noting wrong with the post as written. I don’t see how you can characterize a massive drop in Tory seats and a small loss in Labour seats as anything other than a repudiation, of differing degrees, of both parties. The press and pundits pointed out that the Labour loss was a serious ding, since given the utter hash the Tories have made of Brexit, Labour should have gained, or at least not taken a loss.

      Conservative voters staying home in droves was widely anticipated. The fact that this post attempts to spin that into meaning something it doesn’t mean is pretty astonishing. Enough Obama voters either staying home or switching to Trump was the reason he won.

      1. rtah100

        In fairness, I have re-read your article and my comment and I agree with you. There was nothing wrong with it as it was written, just as I read it. :-)

        But I think it is important to make clear that the major parties are not losing support *to* other parties over Brexit. The political process is losing support – turnout halved in many places. The shifts in election outcomes are merely because turnout is dropping differentially. People of all stripes are staying at home but more Brexiteers than not. I wanted to highlight that the Liberals have not won seats because Remain is winning the argument but because Leave is turning their back on the democratic process (because they voted Leave in good faith and it is being stymied).

  14. Oregoncharles

    I’m not sure that paying such close attention to Brexit is good for your health, Yves. I understand the fascination, and in truth we appreciate the reporting, but gee, watch out for your sanity.

  15. rtah100

    Actually I do have something to add about Brexit. My friend (IRA supporter at school!) is standing for the Tories locally and, disloyally, I am voting for Brexit party….

    1. Clive

      Well, since were here at the fag end of piffle row, I’ll add my local election gossip. One of my good friends stood as a candidate (no names and no parties, sorry, I can’t give everything away). The result was close. Really close. As in, for some of the seats, it was down to a single vote between the duly elected winner and the second place candidate. Here’s the ward

      Anyhow. At the count, everyone in the borough and the local constituencies was there. The local MP, Kit Malthouse. The Conservative Party regional chairman. All the candidates of course, the returning officer and so on. As the result was so close, the Conservative candidate asked for a recount, that’s fair enough. Same result. They asked for another recount, not exactly cricket, but fine, they were entitled. Kit Malthouse, the chairman, all absolutely livid. Furious. “Where’s our votes??!!” “What’s happened to our votes??!!” stormed Malthouse, channeling his inner Robert Mugabe. Result was the same. I can’t remember which it was, either Malthouse or the local party chairman, or a candidate, but one of them demanded a third recount. But I think if I followed what I was told correctly, the retuning officer suggested, politely, this wasn’t really going to be necessary, was it?


  16. rtah100

    :-) Everybody has an inner Mugabe!

    The problem for the Tory party is that, once every epoch, one faction wants something more than it wants to be in power. An inner Trotsky, perhaps. Ah, the seductive danger of principle. And for this epoch, that is Brexit.

    Still, given that the Tories are essentially the party of no change and for everything to stay the same, everything must change, this cycle of theirs is probably a good thing or we still be shaking our spears naked and painted in woad.

    Roll on Brexit and then Corbyn. As a natural Tory, this is the only way to build the New Jerusalem (cue Parry…).

  17. George Phillies

    ” The EU has made clear it’s not ceding ground on the backstop.” They then have the risk of a hard exit. The English might very well solve the Irish border issue by doing next to nothing, for example, spending several years considering environmentally safe signage before putting anything up.

    May’s error was not understanding that she had several Red lines from Parliament that she could not cross and survive. She crossed.

    One might propose that finishing sixth or seventh in the MEP elections will send a message to the conservative leadership, the ones who want to be more effective electorally in the long run than, say, the National Front.

  18. Math is Your Friend

    “May’s error was not understanding that she had several Red lines from Parliament that she could not cross and survive. She crossed.”

    I could be wrong, but from here it looks like there were no winning strategies.

    For every agreement that could attract 100 supporters, it seems that there were more than 100 for whom it was unacceptable.

    The only agreements that could garner a majority in parliament were obviously (to me and those people I talked to) and necessarily unacceptable to the EU.

    The strangest thing from here (far enough away to not have a horse in the race, personally) is the way the various parties spent all their time negotiating within their own parties, with no attention to what was either realistically matched to the fundamental needs of the EU, or (often) physically and logically possible outside of a fantasy.

    Well that and promising things to the EU while publicly telling the British populace or their own party members that they would ignore/evade/abandon those promises.

    Admittedly, it seems that in many cases the proposers of various schemes had not the slightest clue about how the world, or treaties, or the EU, or laws, or trade, or how industries actually worked.

    They also seemed oddly disposed to avoid talking to or listening to the experts who actually knew something, preferring to hand pick their own carefully selected experts who would tell them exactly what they wanted to hear.

    Further, one would expect that the politicians and civil servants of a member state for most of their lives should actually have a clue about the EU, or internal British politics (NI!) or the practical implications of living on an island (Dover??!!). Again, a disappointment hiding in the long grass, waiting to pounce.

    If there was a path out of the fantasy forest to a realistic solution, I can’t map it out.

    The trap was set by asking for a choice before establishing what the real options were, and by failing to allow a choice among all the options, rather than conflating a whole range of very different outcomes…. which is something that many people have already noted as a salient problem.

    Any possibility of recovering from that error in time to do much good was severely hampered by a narcissistic exceptionalism that kept claiming that the EU would be helpless without the UK and totally unable to compete with it in any way. Classic examples include talk of building a launch facility and capturing the bulk of the satellite launch market in two or three years, and designing and building a UK satellite navigation system before the EU could finish Galileo (which they probably can’t even finish or run without us… ??!!).

    Unfortunately, a lot of people wanted to hear that, and were willing to latch on to those ideas with both hands, as hard as they could. If your brain is sufficiently blinkered you don’t even have to cover your eyes and ears – contradictory facts are just whisked from your consciousness, leaving untroubled certitude propping up preferred fantasies.

    Not the best state for dealing with the outside world.

  19. VietnamVet

    Brexit pretty much encapsulates the irrational incompetence that has overtaken the Atlantic Alliance. We are not democracies any more for the simple reason that citizens no longer get the truth but are bombarded with corporate propaganda which is repetitive big lies. The Russian 2016 election collusion lie which was authored by British operative is a good example. Citizens cannot make informed decisions.

    Government has been superseded by multi-national corporations and supranational trade institutions. Extracting wealth to transfer to stockholders and C-suite executives is Standard Operating Procedure. Boeing is a prime example. To increase shareholder value, safety was ignored, suppliers squeezed, and labor screwed. Boeing Machinists to keep their jobs in the Everett, WA plant have lost their pensions. Working conditions are toxic. Problems are not reported up the chain of command. Killing of 346 passengers and crew in two crashes of brand new 737 Max(s) was inevitable.

    The United Kingdom is rudderless. It is certain to hit shoals and be ripped apart. The waves crashing on the rocks straight ahead are visible to the lookouts but there is no change in course.

  20. vidimi

    one overlooked thing is that the EU scored a massive own goal by extending Brexit until Hallowe’en and will pay the price in the EU elections. the Brexit party will do well in the UK, who will then dutifully and gleefully sabotage any initiative the EU brings forward, as will the eurosceptic far right in most other member states.

    Had Britain been allowed to crash out on April 15, there would have certainly been an adverse effect on the economy but the self destruction of the UK would have discredited the eurosceptic far right everywhere. for once, Macron was right. instead of amputating the cancerous limb as it should have, the EU has allowed the cancer to spread.

  21. Math is Your Friend

    “one overlooked thing is that the EU scored a massive own goal by extending Brexit until Hallowe’en and will pay the price in the EU elections. the Brexit party will do well in the UK, who will then dutifully and gleefully sabotage any initiative the EU brings forward,”

    Probably, in the short term.

    In the longer term, the more unreasonable the UK MEPs are, and the more deplorable their behaviour, the more they indicate that their position is supported by fools and antisocial vandals.

    That will be remembered, both in the UK and the EU.

    That the EU gave them every chance to negotiate in good faith, and then some more chances, will rebound to the EU’s credit, and will be remembered as well.

    France, and I suspect other EU countries, will be out of patience, and clearly justified in insisting on an October 31 exit, so the problem will be limited.

    When the next several phases of this come around, Brexit supporters will be discredited, especially in the eyes of the younger UK voters who grew up with the rights, prosperity, opportunities and freedoms the EU provided to members.

    As the WWII Never Ended crowd and the Bring Back the Empire crew, along with the We’re So Special and Better squad die off, this will aid the drive to rejoin the EU.

    At the same time, this will serve as a cautionary tale which should really motivate not granting any special opt-outs or privileges the second time around.

    As always, short term and long term costs and benefits may balance quite differently.

  22. Iorwerth

    Did anyone watch the BBC4 2 part programme ‘Brexit: Behind Closed Doors’?
    It was on last night and the night before. I found it fascinating, a bit like the first half of the film ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’. Even though you know what will/has happened, the suspense just builds.

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