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Keep calm and carry on

Barbara Wesel
October 16, 2018

EU and British officials enjoyed a totally wasted Sunday and Theresa May is looking for her "inner Boudicca." Meanwhile, May's critics accuse her of "buying a pig in a poke" and claim Brussels is "boiling the UK frog."

A European bistro
Image: ZDF

It was a lovely Sunday in Brussels only disrupted by the news that an agreement on Brexit was nigh. A few dozen correspondents quickly abandoned their spots in parks and cafes to make their way to the European Commission. "Thank heavens, it will be over," was the general sentiment.

But then that afternoon, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab appeared and an hour later it was back to zero. What had happened? He took a look at the technical agreement the negotiators had hoped was "agreeable," exchanged a few words with his counterpart Michel Barnier, said "no" and left.

The problem was and is Northern Ireland. The iron promise of the European Union is to prevent a hard border in the region as prescribed by the Good Friday agreement. And this is more difficult than it seems, because it takes a trip into the depthes of sectarian politics and Brexit ideology to understand the abyss that needs to be bridged.

Read more: Will Brits say 'au revoir' to French dream post-Brexit?

The people at the negotiating table in Brussels are level-headed and rather smart civil servants. The teams on both sides had for weeks fiddled with the wording of the legal language in the divorce agreement until a sufficiently undramatic and opaque description for the infamous "backstop," the guarantee against a new border, was achieved. But politics triumphed over good sense and the deal was off. It was a totally wasted Sunday.

May's inner Boudicca

Theresa May is having a hard time on all fronts, as even her opponents will acknowledge. When she appeared in Parliament on Monday, the House behaved like a particular rowdy school class. Derisive laughter was the answer when she declared: "We are entering the end phase of Brexit negotiations" and again when she admonished her colleagues that "we need to keep calm and cool heads."

UK Theresa May
May is urging her colleagues to remain calm, but are they listening?Image: picture-alliance/empics/S. Rousseau

May fought valiantly for two hours trying to explain what the "backstop to the backstop" is and why Britain should stay in a customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Of course one would not stay indefinitely, even though there was no end date. And of course she would never agree to special rules for Northern Ireland. And somewhere over the rainbow Britain would be able to make its own trade deals. 

Nobody liked this state of affairs. The Brexiteers raged against the treachery. The Remainers called for a second referendum. The Northern Irish threatened a no-deal and refused any kind of compromise. The Scots either don't want Brexit at all or don't want this particular Brexit. Labour simply threatened to vote against her. It was a truly lonely day for the prime minister.

Read more: Hard Brexit could trigger 'massive crisis,' warns German industry

To add insult to injury, her former advisor Nick Timothy wrote an article in The Sun asking May to find her "inner Boudicca" and tell the EU where to get off. "It is time for Theresa May to call on her deepest reserves of defiance and stand up to the European Union." Let's consider that Boudicca was a British-Celtic queen who led a military revolt against the occupying Romans in the year 60 AD. Sadly for her, the battle was won by the Romans and Boudicca is reported to have taken her own life.

Buying a pig in a poke

David Davis has turned into an ardent promoter of a quick-as-you-can Brexit. It has completely slipped his mind that he was Brexit secretary until July of this year and that he even signed an Irish backstop last December. Unburdened by his own past experience, he stridently criticizes May's Brexit deal because it gives no guarantees for the UK's future economic relationship with the EU.

Brexit rally in Bolton
No longer in office, Davis (right) has been critical of Max's Brexit planImage: picture-alliance/empics

"This is a 39-billion-pound pig in a poke," Davis complained in an interview with ITV, saying he would not be prepared to pay a divorce bill for nothing. However, that is the nature of these things. You basically pay for what you now consider the mistakes of the past.

Davis also wants a clear end date for the UK's stay in the customs union. And overall he views the upside of Brexit as vanishing because "we can't do trade deals with the rest of the world." Oh dear. Once more with feeling: The UK has trade deals with pretty much everybody in the world via its EU membership. Nobody has yet offered Britain vastly better conditions after Brexit. But do we detect a defensive note here, should Brexit turn out less glorious than promised?

Her majesty's useless opposition

"A dilemma with a capital D" is what Tony Blair calls Brexit. The problems were inherent in leaving the EU, says the former Labour leader and prime minister who has advised his party to vote against May's deal. Above all, Blair thinks the question should be put back to the people.

Read more: Musicians and dog owners in London urge Theresa May to reconsider Brexit

But the current Labour leader views things much differently. Jeremy Corbyn continues to straddle the Brexit fence. He might agree to a second referendum, but he might also vote for the prime minister's deal. He is partly against Brexit, and on the other hand for Brexit, because he never liked the EU.

Tony Blair at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit
Blair wants another Brexit vote, but he is the wrong man to unite LabourImage: Reuters/K. Navntoft

Blair keeps on trying to change Labour's course, but he is a flawed messenger. A second referendum might just be possible before March 29, but Blair can't lead this fight. His political clout was destroyed years ago by leading the UK into the Iraq War.

Boiling the frog

Ivan Rogers was the first victim of Brexit in Brussels. Negotiations had hardly begun when the government in London ousted him as the UK's EU ambassador. Rogers was Britain's most knowledgeable pundit in European affairs but had an unfortunate tendency to speak truth to power.

Now Rogers has given his take on the state of Brexit in a speech at Trinity College. And it was a bracing affair. "Failing to engage with the EU's reality has really hurt," he said. "The EU has been boiling the UK frog ever since. On process, sequencing, substance, there has been movement only one way."

He also demolished May's favorite delusion: "As with the core economic elements of Chequers, the chance of the EU agreeing them is precisely zero."

In any case, the transition period will have to be prolonged. "The EU is in no particular rush to get this done — as it sits rather comfortably with the UK in its status quo transition, with all the obligations of membership and none of the rights," he said.

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