Expert View

5 Brexit lessons from the dinner from hell

by Denis MacShane | 02.05.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels.

It remains a mystery why last Wednesday’s hellish dinner was ever held. All of Brussels has been agog over the long May Day weekend about the Arctic atmosphere that fell on Downing Street as Jean-Claude Juncker spelt out some home truths to Theresa May.

She has more urgent business – crushing Labour in the June 8 general election and winning her own mandate as prime minister – so the Number 10 spin machine is out in force claiming nothing much happened. No one in Brussels or any other EU capital believes that line, even if the ever loyal BBC and press accept it as the truth.

There are five key lessons to be drawn from the Downing Street dinner from hell:

1. There is a dangerous gulf between UK and EU perceptions of Brexit.

For the British, it is just an amicable separation. The partner we’re walking out on after 40-odd years will soon come round to accepting a velvet divorce. The EU, by contrast, regards Brexit as an historic ideological victory funded by very rich men to weaken and ultimately put an end to all Treaty-based, legally enforceable European integration since 1950.

2. This is not about one man – the uber-demonised European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Every EU government is saying the same thing. Five centuries of London playing divide and rule in Europe are over. Britain’s politicians need to talk to 27 sets of national politicians to get on top of Brexit.

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    3. May’s advisers seem to like sending her naked into the conference chamber – or the Downing Street dining room.

    Her comparison of leaving the EU to the justice and home affairs dossier, as if Brexit was about securing a mix of opt-ins chosen unilaterally from a UK menu, was bizarre. The UK will become a third country. Outside the Customs Union it will have lower status than Turkey. Does no one in Downing Street understand that?

    4. All the points made by the EU side are common knowledge in European capitals.

    Anyone who bothers to go to Berlin or Warsaw or Madrid can freely discuss them with ministers and officials in charge of Brexit. This is not an anti-UK plot made in Berlaymont. It represents the minimum demands of 27 sovereign governments that have to deal with their own voters and parliaments.

    5. May now has a problem with the media.

    In particular, the prime minister is exposed to the views of newspapers that her MPs, candidates and Tory activists read – the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail – and their main radio news source, the BBC’s Today programme. All are failing to report adequately the seriousness of the positions adopted by EU member states. Juncker and Michel Barnier are a bit more than messenger boys, but the decisions they relay are taken in Berlin, Paris and so forth. The EU 27 are determined to preserve the EU minus the UK if May insists on full amputational Brexit. They have no problems with other Europeans working outside their home countries or with accepting the ECJ as an arbiter. It is time the press and BBC reported these facts. Right now, the UK media coverage of Brexit realities is doing the prime minister and political leaders no service at all.

    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    12 Responses to “5 Brexit lessons from the dinner from hell”

    • Not only should the right-wing press be reporting the harsh realities of this lunacy, but so too should the government be telling people straight that the country has absolutely nothing to gain from Brexit, but at best will lose a great deal and at worst suffer catastrophic economic consequences. The whole thing, right from the very start, has been a result of Tory in-fighting, and it remains so.

    • Im astounded we are at this stage, and no forecast, projections or brexit scenarios have been issued by the government. Be it pre or post referendum. This information is either available but being withheld, or not available in which case “gross incompetence” would probably be an understatement.
      People should be able to understand what could happen. I appreciate there are many scenarios / variables, however there are some givens in this situation.

    • Whilst no one should expect or be surprised at the absence of objectivity from the well known right-wing, always-Euroskeptic print (& online) media, you’re harsh & unreasonable to attack the BBC & one minority-interest, middle-class radio programme in particular. A more valid criticism, or rather observation, would be that they tend to follow, rather than lead the “news agenda”; this story itself being a case in point, being reported widely on social media during Monday, it only became central to the BBC news coverage by late Monday, but it did, and as critically as it had been on the internet

      • Hi Richard,

        the problem with the BBC is not so much what stories it chooses to look at (though there is plenty of bias in it), but rather how it presents and frames the story.

        for a while (and especially since Cameron’s first election as PM), the BBC has been sheepishly following the UK’s government line, to the point it could genuinely be called the british Pravda.

        but what irks me the most (as a Continental), is the sheer dishonesty, jingoism and propaganda when one listens to the comments by BBC presenters (pace Andrew Neil, Laura Kuenssberg, Andrew Marr, Jeremy Paxman among many other).
        watch the “paper review” or “EU politics review” to get a feel at how this london-centric, english-uber alles, media cosa nostra works … for a public organisation that is supposed to help british “subjects” to understand the issues, it’s pathetically biased.
        maybe not as much as the tabloids, but that’s hardly matter for celebration.

    • This slogan that we need “strong leadership” to obtain a good Brexit deal needs to be properly understood. What good is strong leadership if the leader is on a completely different wavelength with whom she is negotiating with? We will end up in the worst possible scenario without any ‘preferential’ access to the European market, no better than say Chilie or Uzbekestan’s. Does she not understand that integrity of the European Single Market is paramount for the EU, and they will not give the prize of access to it away for nothing. If the PM does not recognise that, then Juncker is correct that Brexit cannot be a success.

      Access to that market is fundamental not only for Uk business , but also for private citizens in terms of many of their rights. It is fanciful to think that the European market can be replaced overnight by markets on the other side of the planet. If T. May does not get that message, then we need another PM who does get it.

    • I’m not particularly keen on taking advice from Denis Macshane but his analysis seems on the ball to me. We Brits have never really understood the Brussels mindset and our current politicians still don’t. There are many reluctant Remainers out there (myself included) who have had reservations about the EU and its sometimes corrupt workings as well as the way an elite wants to make the future in its chosen image but on the other hand I haven’t personally found anything significant to complain about or things which have affected me adversely. The EU became the object on which the frustrations of many could be targeted. Blaming the EU for the gross inequalities in our society seems to me to be unfair – this was down to our own politicians and an unwillingness to change. We are bound to lose in the coming negotiations because time is not on our side. Our case is not a good one. Blather from TM is intended for the home electorate but will have absolutely no effect in Brussels. American style life here we come!

    • There is one more issue to clarify. If Brexit happens and turns out to be a disaster, who will be responsible?
      Not the voters, because they votes were based on not proved statements of politicians which created an atmosphere where pro-brexit votes seemed reasonable for many. It would be about time to make polititians responsible for what they say.

    • Another thing that is little understood in Britain is that our sources of news and the piffle that the Brexit media toss out are being read, often untranslated, all over Europe. Leavened with comments that stress the infantile hostility that accompanies the British effort to get the “best” deal, making it look like Britain hasn’t much of a clue what a good deal would actually look like. Compare that with our dependence on English language media here and one major difference, and our disadvantage to European citizens, is glaringly exposed.

    • And, obviously, if Brexit does turn out a disaster it’s the Europeans who did the dreadful deed. They we’re hostile and wanted to punish Britain, didn’t want us to succeed and put their own advantage over ours. And that despite our forefathers liberating them from the French and from the Germans etc. you can see it coming on.

    • Time for every right minded Conservative to vote against this #StrangeAndUnstable prime minister and her #CoalitionOfChaos. She has undermined our nation’s interests around the world. She has helped trash our reputation for sane government. She is threatening our economy and our democracy with her attacks on trading partners and the independence of the judiciary. She is hell bent on divide and misrule. Time to vote for any alternative. Time to vote for an open, tolerant and United Kingdom.