Expert View

Mad dogs and English(wo)men go out in the midday sun

by David Hannay | 09.08.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Watching Theresa May and her ministers zig-zagging about Europe at the height of one the hottest holiday seasons on record, trying to stir up apathy about the Brexit negotiations, leaves one wondering whether they are yearning nostalgically for the days when, to paraphrase Noel Coward’s lyrics, “mad dogs and Englishmen (went) out in the midday sun.” Alternatively, perhaps they have simply been standing too long in that sun. It would be mildly amusing, if it were not so humiliating.

One problem for the government is that they have left it far too late to put their basic negotiating position on the table. At least 18 months of Article 50’s two-year negotiation period have been wasted in internecine quarrelling within its own ranks.

Then there is the unfortunate fact that the centre-piece of their proposals, the fantastically complex Facilitated Customs Arrangement for trade between the UK and the EU, has about as much chance of flying as a pig.

Add to that the “no-deal” preparations being put in hand, if we are to believe the Whitehall spin machinery. They are far more likely to spread alarm and despondency at home than to provide re-assurance. Abroad, they will inevitably sow doubt in the minds of the EU-27 that the government is really trying to negotiate a deal at all, especially when so many of its parliamentary supporters (who always seem to get their way when it comes to a showdown) are vociferously proclaiming the virtues of such an outcome. All in all you have there a witches’ brew.

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Does the government indeed have a negotiating plan at all? This must be in doubt. Certainly May’s expedition to Fort Brégançon to see Emmanuel Macron at his summer retreat revealed no sign of one, nor, for that matter, of any flexibility in one of the key figures on the side of the 27.

It really is hard to believe that a French president whose career included a spell as an investment banker in Paris is going to cut any slack for the UK on financial services. That seems to have been the conclusion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has been exuding pessimism. And even if there could be French flexibility on security policies, that still leaves the whole issue of trade, and many other questions on the agenda, up in the air.

The only plan the UK government seems to have is to try to nurture divisions among the EU-27 and to use that to undermine their support for the Commission’s negotiators. But just how clever an idea is that, when, in theory at least, we are within weeks of the end of the negotiations?

If there is to be agreement on the terms of the divorce, on details of the transition period (already far too short and in urgent need of being capable of being extended), and on the framework for a future UK/EU relationship which is anything more than warm words and waffle, there will need to be unanimity among the EU-27, not disagreement. Attempts to divide-and-rule at this late stage simply take us over a cliff in March 2019. Anyone who believes that responsibility for that can realistically be laid at the door of the EU-27 has clearly been smoking a strong substance.

Of course there are solutions to all these problems, and ones which the Commission and the EU-27 could well be prepared to contemplate. But the UK government systematically turns them all down – no to a customs union, no to remaining in the Single Market, no to a clear role for the European Court of Justice in any dispute settlement procedures, no to the formula for the Irish backstop.

Slowly but surely the government is ensuring that Brexit will leave Britain less prosperous, less secure and less influential – and that in a world where our closest ally is Donald Trump, who’s busy dismantling the rules-based international order on which we will depend even more than we do already if Brexit goes ahead.

Edited by Quentin Peel

2 Responses to “Mad dogs and English(wo)men go out in the midday sun”

  • “Divide and Rule” has domestically always served the Tory Party well, but that they should even think it will work in Europe is yet another indication of their ignorance of Europe and the EU. Personally, I believe it smacks of desperation.

  • Just reading Spiegel Online, which is a German political magazine coming from a broadly social democratic direction, by no means all posters take a view that we should immediately be welcomed back with open arms, if we were to cancel Brexit. Quite a number seem to imply it might do us some good to feel the error of our ways over a period, allowing the message to get home to a larger majority.

    I don’t know how representative this is of how the German government thinks, or of German public opinion. My impression at a personal level, is that most Germans regret Brexit and would be happier with the UK part of the EU, not so much for commercial reasons, but because the peace and stability of Europe is paramount to their way of life, as opposed to a return of nationalism. There is also a widespread view that the UK brings much needed pragmatism to the EU to balance against the more bureaucratic governmental model favoured by the French.
    However, what seems clear is that if we are to reverse Brexit, the sooner it happens the better. When we get past 29 March 2019, it will become progressively more difficult. There will come a point when reversing the Brexit process will become the more complicated option for the EU.