Yves here. It seemed fitting to post again on Brexit, if nothing else to commemorate, if that’s the right word, Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister of the UK Wednesday afternoon.
It’s not a good omen that the EU has felt compelled to debunk Johnson’s campaign claims about Brexit that have been taken up again by allies. From the Guardian:
Boris Johnson’s claims that crashing out of the EU with no deal would be less painful because of a series of “side deals” that the UK has already done with Brussels have been dismissed as “rubbish” by the EU….
Iain Duncan Smith referred to 17 side deals on the table while the former chancellor Norman Lamont told Sky News hours after Johnson won the Tory leadership contest that “there is no such thing as no deal” as there were “all sorts of side deals that were done”.
A senior EU official described the claims of side deals as “pure rubbish”, pointing out that the so-called deals are unilateral positions taken by the EU alone to keep the basics functioning on their side of the border.
Michel Barnier apparently saw the need to remind Johnson that the Withdrawal Agreement was the only deal on offer:
We look forward to working constructively w/ PM @BorisJohnson when he takes office, to facilitate the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and achieve an orderly #Brexit. We are ready also to rework the agreed Declaration on a new partnership in line with #EUCO guidelines.
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) July 23, 2019
Other EU leaders were more pointed. From the Independent:
The EU has shot down Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan within moments of his appointment as Tory leader, in the latest sign that the bloc has no plans to make concessions.
In an intervention timed to coincide with Mr Johnson’s election announcement, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president, told reporters in Brussels that the EU would not renegotiate the deal reached with Theresa May.
Another EU commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, also warned that politicians like Mr Johnson were undermining democracy with “cheap promises, simplified visions, blatantly evident incorrect statements”.
A new article at Politico takes up the theme that EU leaders see Johnson as a joke:
After years of laughing at him, Europeans simply don’t take Johnson seriously. At this stage, it’s difficult to imagine what could change their minds.
While Europeans may take delight in lampooning Donald Trump, they also respect (and fear) the power of his office…
But no one’s afraid of Johnson.
Though the U.K. remains a key strategic player within Europe, that reliance cuts across both sides of the Channel. Following the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker by Iran last week, for example, the U.K. responded by calling for a European naval force to protect sea routes in the Strait of Hormuz.
When it comes to the economy, the U.K. is far more dependent on the EU than vice versa.
That’s why Europe’s response to Johnson’s threat to leave the EU come what may on October 31, deal or no deal, has been a polite yawn.
Corbyn has promised a “surprise” no confidence motion (huh?) but it’s not clear his fellow MPs would be keen to have elections now, given how badly Labour has been polling. Bloomberg reports that Johnson said he won’t call a snap election.
To elicit further reader input, we’re posting yet another Brexit piece that has us scratching our heads. It describes how the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen and the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna set up a large team that was diverse by background, nationality, and political views, to “wargame” Brexit.
What is frustrating is that the effort got so much right in terms of how it assigned roles and set parameters, but got one part disastrously wrong: that Brexit is a default, and the Government has to either sign the Withdrawal Agreement, ask for an extension, or revoke Article 50 to prevent an October 31 departure. By making Parliament the focus of the wargame, the exercise had the effect of getting the participants to see Parliament as in charge when it isn’t.
This is consistent with the fact that Parliament isn’t taking steps sufficient to prevent a crashout and seems to be kidding itself about the effectiveness of its gambits to date. Only legislation instructing the Prime Minister could do that. Mere motions or the blocking of particular avenues, like keeping the Government from proroguing Parliament, aren’t adequate. The fact that MPs aren’t objecting to the normal summer recess or the expected September break for party caucuses is a sign of unseriousness.
If Johnson were clever and determined to have his Brexit, he’s minimize but not entirely eliminate Parliamentary time for Brexit. Of course, MPs could try to add a “no crashout” amendment to another bit of legislation. Could Johnson schedule any “must have early on” bills for early in the session, before enough MPs realize only legislation can stop a no deal if that’s what Johnson wants or winds up stumbling into?
As you’ll see, the wargame results in vote for a second referendum. It’s hard to see that happening by the end of October, or even year end, if for some reason the UK asks for an extension and the EU agrees to a short one. And it’s hard to see a second referendum solving anything. The tacit assumption is that UK voters will reverse themselves, but what if they don’t? And I’ve yet to see how to formulate second referendum questions to get at what “Leave” means.
And statements like this don’t help the second referendum cause. It comes off at too close to saying a second referendum result reaffirming Leave would not be acceptable:
By Luke Cooper, a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Fellow on the Europe’s Futures programme at the IWM in 2018 – 2019. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of the European Union. @lukecooper100. Originally published at openDemocracy
Scenario planning plays an important role in modern politics. Political contestation is the art of out-manoeuvring opponents. By attempting to anticipate the moves they will make in response to events and problems, party leaderships or factions plan for possible eventualities. They seek to defeat the other side by outwitting them strategically. Simulation games are aimed at helping these efforts by building up a picture of how their opponents behave.
Such games can hone strategic thinking, but they are, of course, necessarily imperfect, ‘probabilistic’ exercises. However well scenarios are prepared for there will always be too many variables for us to ‘know’ the future. There are simply too many possible events and factors that might occur, and interact in unique, complex and contingent ways, for us to be entirely sure what the actual course of history will be. E.H. Carr made this point in his famous text, What is History? Carr argued that, by the middle of the twentieth century, historians had abandoned determinism and were now more modest in their goals. ‘Content to inquire how things work’, as he put it.[i]
Rather than believing the goal of an enquiry into the past was to achieve certainty about the course of events in the future, Carr instead proposed a method based on hypothesis and interpretation. For Carr a good hypothesis constituted a ‘tool of thought, valid in so far as it is illuminating, and dependent for its validity on interpretation’.[ii] The logic of this principle was simple. History does not follow a strict determinism. But neither is anything possible. Drawing on Carr we might say that any study of a political process requires interpreting the mix of interests and circumstances in order to illuminate how exactly it evolves over time. Carr serves as a useful frame for a simulation game exercise.
The Brexit Simulation
A group of us recently participated in a simulation game to model the future of the Brexit process. By assuming different roles amongst the forces in conflict over the future of the United Kingdom, we hoped to gain a greater understanding of the process and what might come next. We solicited the help of Richard Barbrook, an academic at Westminster University, and director of Digital Liberties, a UK-based cooperative that has pioneered the use of participatory simulations to anticipate political scenarios. His book, Class Wargames, applies the ideas of the French situationist, Guy Debord, who advocated the use of strategy games as performative, even theatrical, exercises to understand one’s political opponents and their strategic thinking. Barbrook designed the game, which he called, Meaningful Votes: The Brexit Simulation.
Collaborating on this initiative with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM) and the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna we assembled a group of participants in Vienna comprised of civil society, journalists, academics and intellectuals.They were a mixture of nationalities, from Austria, the Balkans, the United States and Britain, and held a plurality of political views from left to right. For mainland European participants the game provided an opportunity to empirically rationalise a crisis that many had found inexplicable; for example, the refusal hitherto of the British parties to find a compromise on Brexit in Parliament is highly alien to those used to the political systems with a culture of building consensus (often with proportional representation), that exist in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. Each participant took on the role of a faction within Parliament with the game beginning after the defeat of the heavy defeat of the First Meaningful Vote on 15 January 2019.
Simulating the Factions
As Brexit has radically disrupted the existing British party system, the factional roles assumed by players did not tend to align with a particular party leadership. Instead different Tory and Labour factions were represented within the game. Each player had a series of votes allocated in the British Parliament. Larger factions had two different vote allocations: ‘waverers’ and diehards. They could potentially cast these votes in different directions. Another element of the game design lay in a consciously British-centric approach. An assumption underpinning the game was that the EU side would act as, in gaming-terms, a ‘dummy-player’. This refers to when an actor is present within a scenario, who does not face choices that affect the overall arc of the decision pathway. With modifications to the Withdrawal Agreement persistently ruled out by the EU, had players assumed this vantage point they would not have faced any choices. As a dummy-player, the umpire thus articulated the position of the EU-27 states at key decision-making points across the game.
Following the playful spirit of Debord’s legacy, this really was a game.Players accumulated points in relation to different votes passing and goals being reached. Some had hidden objectives that were revealed at the end of the game, identifying a potential conflict between the public statements of factions and their underlying motivations. The ‘winner’ had the most points at the end of the game.
Towards ‘No Brexit’
So what happened? And what did we learn from this exercise?
The outcome of the game eventually resolved itself in a new referendum. By this stage the game had moved into the near future of early autumn 2019. The cross-party negotiations had failed to reach a breakthrough acceptable to both leaderships. Softer members of the Tory Brexit Delivery Group then split away from the party leadership, crossing the floor to support a new referendum. Interestingly, this came as a surprise to the game designer, Barbrook, who had anticipated a stalemate and a further extension of Article 50 at the end of October 2019.
If this suggests the game had a Remain bias, other moments in the scenario serve to refute this. At an earlier moment in the game a majority emerged in Parliament in spite of opposition from Labour and the Remain parties, for the kind of technological solution to the Irish border question favoured by the ERG as an alternative to the troubled ‘Irish backstop’. Assuming the dummy-player function, the EU then intervened via the umpire into the Parliamentary scenario to rule out an agreement without the backstop. With Parliament then voting against leaving without a deal, the political factions were confronted with the same problem they have at the current time.
The crux of this decision is ultimately a narrow one: few options are still available to parties, making the outcome relatively straightforward to model. Leave on the deal May has negotiated with the EU, which is unpopular with Brexit voters and with Labour Remain voters who would like a second referendum. Or negotiate changes to the UK-future relationship document (the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened by the EU) to make the Brexit deal softer, making it more palatable for the Labour Party but even less acceptable to Brexit voters and Brexiters in the Tory party. As the changes are not legally binding on a future Tory prime minister even a Labour Party leadership wishing to ‘deliver Brexit’ has little incentive to support such a deal. This leaves only two further choices. Hold new elections in the hope they might produce a balance in the Parliament more conducive to striking a deal. Or, move towards a new referendum, which includes the opportunity to remain in the EU.
Globalisation, Brexit and Strategic Choices
The outcome of the game is not an exact prediction of events in the near future. One player’s calculation that at a certain stage the mainstream of the Tory party will have to try and ‘move on’ from Brexit by peeling off towards a referendum is what Carr called an interpretive hypothesis. It will be tested in the months ahead.
Rather the game offers an insight into the interests that will shape this and the core contradiction underpinning the process: that there is not a tangible, pragmatic form of Brexit acceptable to the people that want Brexit. The vote in the game for ‘technological solutions to the Irish border’ was analogous with, though not identical to, Parliament’s vote on the 30 January 2019 for the ‘Brady amendment’, which mandated the government to seek changes to the Irish backstop as a condition for passing the Withdrawal Agreement. Having passed by 317 votes to 301, Theresa May hailed it as demonstrating a ‘substantial and sustainable majority’ for leaving the EU. When the EU insisted on the Irish backstop, the refusal of the hard Brexiters and the DUP to compromise forced a logic of events that points increasingly to ‘no Brexit’.