How on earth, we bewildered and disenchanted voters are entitled to ask, as the futile May 23 elections take place, can the Government and Parliament have contrived to make such a mess of implementing the verdict of the Referendum of June 23 2016? And how is that the Commentariat – scribes, pundits, opinion formers and soothsayers, the cerebral elite of Newsnight – have so signally failed to analyse in the depth required how and why things have gone so wrong?
The root cause of the Brexit fiasco
The answer is twofold: first, in spite of formal pledges with overwhelming majorities to respect the result of the 2019 Referendum, our legislators, in common with virtually every category of the Great and the Good, are in fact shot through with Remaindership. Collectively they have never been more than half-hearted in fulfilling those pledges. The Commentariat have been similarly disposed.
Secondly, even if the whole of the UK establishment had flung itself with enthusiasm into the task, those concerned lacked the analytical width and depth to get any real grip on the withdrawal process as a whole. As a result, the conduct on the UK side of the negotiations themselves has been characterised by astonishing incompetence, lack of tenacity, and inadequate mastery of the detail.
Both parts of the answer have a common origin: Membership during the past forty six years of the EEC /EC/EU has not only established among us a whole gamut of comfort zones, but has also nurtured in us an instinctive impression that no other arrangement can or should be prudently contemplated, above all in the field of international affairs. It has also served, to an extent that we shall not be able satisfactorily to assess for a decade or more, to reduce our national expertise in, and creative thought about, the management of world affairs: this deterioration t rested to a large extent on the implicit assumption that all that was primarily in the Brussels bailiwick.
And we must not forget the whole saga of our sub-standard performance during the years of our membership. It can be summed up as catch-up, opt-out and cop-out, corresponding approximately to the Thatcher, Major and Blair/Brown premierships
Up until the great financial crisis erupted in 2008, we assumed that the moneypersons knew what they were doing, and were reliable sources of advice. We have made a similar error in the case of British EU pundits and pensioners..
The devil is in the detail
A second cause of our present woes is the pronounced British aversion for examining the detail. Yet where the devil is in the detail, ignoring or discounting it is a recipe for disaster. The devil is everywhere in EU detail. Both the Government and Parliament have persistently and consistently ignored it. Our EU partners were quick to recognise and exploit, to their gratification and our discomfiture, that abject British failure.
The Lisbon Treaty is without doubt the most labyrinthine, user-unfriendly heap of material ever presented to democratic governments for adoption as a treaty. Article 50, setting out the procedure for withdrawal of a member state, is perhaps the jewel in its tatterdemalion crown. Its sole saving grace is the requirement, inserted without explanation in the middle of paragraph 2, that the Commission, when negotiating and concluding (italics mine) an agreement with that state (italics again mine), setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, shall “take account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.
Our EU partners targeted this saving grace immediately. In their Guidelines, adopted on April 29, 2017, and reaffirmed on many occasions since, they made it crystal clear t the outset that they would ride roughshod over the provisions of paragraph 2 of Article 50. Specifically, the negotiations were to be “phased”: there would be discussion of the framework only in a second phase, to be broached as and when the our partners – repeat our partners – were satisfied that “sufficient progress” had been made on the first phase, which was to be concerned solely with the negotiations on the arrangements for withdrawal.
Paragraph 5 of the Guidelines asserts that “While a future relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom as such can only be finalised and concluded once the United Kingdom becomes a third country, Article 50 requires to take account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union in the arrangements for withdrawal”. The first part of that sentence is directly at odds with the wording of paragraph 2 of Article 50, which speaks specifically of concluding the agreement, ad the use of the term “that state” indicates that it is no longer a member state
The second part of the Guidelines sentence quoted is a distortion of the wording of paragraph 2 of Article 50. It alleges that account is to be taken of the framework for our future relationship “in the arrangements for withdrawal”. In fact the requirement is for the Commission to take account of it in negotiating and concluding an agreement setting out the arrangements for our withdrawal. There is a great deal of difference between the two.
One may search the annals of multilateral diplomacy in vain to find anything as comprehensively negative and unhelpful as the EU Guidelines of April 29, 2017.
The nadir: April 10, 2019
We heard not a whimper of complaint from the UK negotiators. I do not recall any serious discussion on the floor of the House of Commons. Tame UK acceptance of the monstrous EU Guidelines could not but ensure a general downward trend in our fortunes, ending in the ultimate absurdity recorded as a “main result” of the “Special European Council (Art.50) of April 10, 2019”: “EU27 leaders took note of the letter sent by the Prime Minister Theresa May asking for a further extension of the Article 50 period. They agreed to an extension to allow for the ratification of the withdrawal agreement” (in bold),
The fruit of the UK/EU labours was insistence by our partners that we accept an arrangement that is not only grossly inequitable, such that no democratic government or legislature should stomach, but also constitutes a glaring contravention of the provisions of Article 50.
The course of events leading to this grotesque outcome will furnish chroniclers in years to come with a virtually inexhaustible supply of evidence to support Edward Gibbon’s contention that history “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind”.
Stop digging, and call the shots instead
By common consent, the best advice to give someone who is in a hole is to stop digging. That is not the Prime Minister’s way. Having witnessed its rejection three times by the House of Commons, Mrs May is still hoping to secure the passage of her Deal by means of offering sweeteners, to the Labour Party in particular.
The remedy is to hand. But it requires us to cast off the yoke of subservience to “Brussels” which we have all too willingly worn, and think about the issue from on top and outside, rather than from underneath and inside.
Let us return to the nadir of April 10. As in 2018, over the ridiculous business of deciding whether “sufficient progress” had been made in the first phase to “permit” passing to the second phase, our partners have painted themselves into a corner. Either the UK accepts a deal which is not only scandalously inequitable deal but also in blatant contravention of the terms of Article 50, or it’s nothing.
We- the British people – cannot and will not accept the deal as it is. Our partners have two options: either they can agree to amend the present texts, in order to bring them into line with the terms of Article 50 and remove the backstop; or the world will see that they are responsible for us leaving the EU without a deal. It is relevant that the EU will lose the services of both President Tusk and President Juncker during the course of the year.
Author: Peter Marshall is a former member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and served as Assistant Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.
This article was first published on Briefings for Brexit, and is republished with permission. You may not use, copy, distribute, publish, syndicate, sub-license and transmit the whole or any part of such material in any manner and in any format and/or media without the permission of the original publishers.
Image: by informatique / William Murphy – https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/2557730464/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4222078.