The British media provides a consistently misleading version of the process of UK disengagement from EU membership. The term used for this process, “Brexit”, is itself a substantial source of misguidance and obfuscation.
The consistently poor reporting and misinterpretation have a clear cause. The British media continues to fight the in/out battle rather than engage in constructive debate over the route to and characteristics of the future relationship between the British and their government to EU citizens and their governments.
The fear that the Remainers will reverse the 2016 referendum drives the strategy and tactics of the Leavers, as represented by the anti-EU faction of the Conservative Party. The woe-begotten UK Prime Minister encapsulated this strategy in the clichés “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
The centrist and liberal Remainers, whose foremost media organ is The Guardian, have adopted a “certain disaster” strategy. The tactics associated with this strategy seize on every complication and problem as evidence of the impossibility of negotiating a new relationship beneficial for both British and EU citizens and governments.
The strategies of hard-line Remainers and Leavers are revanchist for the former (seeking to reverse a defeat) and irredentist for the latter (hoping to recapture a lost nation). Central to both strategies is the personification of countries, even continents.
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Remainers and Leavers both define the great battle as “Britain” against “Europe” (which is why I repeatedly write “peoples and governments”). This simplistic conceptualization lies at the heart of the fallacies that undermine public understanding of the negotiation process before us. Dispelling these fallacies opens the route to a sustainable and mutually beneficial interaction among governments and peoples of Europe.
Fallacy 1: Theresa May doesn’t have a clue
Except for a few members of the Tory cabinet, commentators across the political spectrum characterize Theresa May as incompetent and ill-informed, completely incapable of effective negotiations with “the Europeans”. This interpretation finds clear misrepresentation via a tweet in which a decidedly anguished May confesses to not having a “clue”.
This characterization of May’s approach to Brexit – unprepared, unclear on strategy and undecided on what outcome she seeks – is wrong. The outcome sought by May and most of the Conservative leadership is close to that advocated by the right-wing group, Economists for Free Trade (formerly named Economists for Brexit).
On its website these “free traders” state that they “believe the UK’s optimal Brexit path is outside the Single Market and Customs Union”. Explicit in this “path” is the end of EU-type environmental regulations, protection of workers rights, and product standards for consumer protection.
The Prime Minister’s negotiating goal and strategy is clear – end the protective regulations that constrain UK-based business. This neoliberal outcome will prove unpopular among British citizens. Therefore, the British government negotiators must cast the blame for a “bad agreement” on the European Commission (“Europe”).
Fallacy 2: There is a United European Position
The second fallacy – that “Europe” has a united negotiating position – is essential to protecting the Tory government from blame should the final agreement prove unpopular in Britain. As for other aspects of the negotiation process, both hard-line Remain and Leave perpetuate this fallacy.
A recent column by the usually sensible Andrew Rawnsley carries the headline “the jeering sound you hear is Europe laughing at Britain”. Similarly, readers are told that “Britain” will “lose influence” in Europe and globally as a result of triggering the fateful Article 50 that formalized intention to leave. In a trivial but visually striking way a Guardian video sought to emphasize the Britain-left-out and EU-united message (it catches other EU heads of state apparently ignoring Theresa May).
The message is false. “Europe” is not united and the common negotiating position set out by the European Commission represents the usual uneasy and fragile consensus among heads of governments. No intelligent person could believe otherwise. Without Britain, the EU will still have 27 members, whose governments and citizens have different interests on important economic, social and political issues. The formal structure of the Union and the Commission allows for an illusion of unity where it does not exist. The Union has no less than five people (all men) who boast the title of “president”. The two most frequently quoted in the British media, Jean-Claude Juncker (president of the European Commission) and Donald Tusk (president of the European Council) have limited power or influence.
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The most important influences on the negotiating position formally but forward by the Commission are the governments of France and Germany. France has a new president still establishing his authority at home and abroad and has yet to declare a clear position on the negotiations. As I explained in a previous article, the German government has serious internal splits among the “partners” – the Christian Democratic Union (the Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party. The “European” position is fluid not fixed.
The UK government has a preferred outcome in mind but lacks clarity on the route to achieve it, while the European governments have not established the details of their desired outcome, but have a clear bureaucratic route to it once established (via the Commission and subsequent national ratifications).
Negotiating a Positive Relationship
The vote by a majority of UK citizens to end EU membership was a terrible mistake. A rational discussion of the consequences of that mistake requires that we accept it as irreversible. In the foreseeable future, the British government will not represent a full EU member state and British citizens will not be EU citizens. These are facts that will not change.
However, ending full membership does not mean “leaving Europe”. It means negotiating a different and mutually beneficial relationship.
First, the major barrier to achieving a beneficial relationship is the British government. Its aggressive rhetoric prevents cooperation and compromise. The purpose of the polemics is to appease the rabid Leavers in the Conservative Party, and, more important, to provoke EU officials to appear intransigent (Mr Juncker’s public pronouncements have frequently fulfilled this purpose).
Second, we can realistically anticipate a new British government under Labour that will approach negotiations in a spirit of cooperation and compromise. The more cooperative approach by a Labour government should not be interpreted as likely to reverse the referendum verdict in spirit or practice. Several EU treaty provisions directly contradict Labour Party policy. Most obvious is the prohibition on subsidies that “distort competition”, which is inconsistent with the industrial policy in the Labour manifesto.
Third, the guidelines exist for a positive future relationship. A paper from the Bruegel research centre in Brussels lays out an excellent beginning, covering all major aspects of a future EU-UK interaction. The London-based Centre for European Reform recently released a considerably narrower “policy brief” proposing a “best possible” EU-UK trade arrangement.
There is no way out of “Brexit”, but there is a way forward for progressives if we accept that British membership in the Union will end, and by accepting that rational discussion can replace polemics.
John Weeks is co-ordinator of the London-based Progressive Economy Forum and professor emeritus of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is author of The Debt Delusion: Living within Our Means and Other Fallacies (2019) and Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Services the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy.