Teeing up the Brexit blame game

by Luke Lythgoe | 30.08.2017

At some point the Brexit penny will drop with an almighty clang. Perhaps negotiations will collapse and the cliff edge will beckon. Or the economy will take a nosedive. Or the government will be forced to make compromises incompatible with UK national pride and/or implied referendum promises. The question then is: who gets the blame for Brexit falling apart?

It won’t be the 17 million voters who opted for Leave last year – that was democracy, the will of the people. You might expect a large portion of the blame to be heaped on the Tory government, for its impractical red lines, distracting infighting and unrealistic, dogmatic Brexit vision. Hapless Prime Minister Theresa May makes an obvious scapegoat.

For the eurosceptic press, however, the blame game has already begun, with sights squarely trained on Brussels. Take the editorial in today’s Telegraph headlined: “Who do those arrogant EU apparatchiks Juncker and Barnier think they are?” The article responded to comments by the European Commission’s president and chief negotiator saying the UK’s position papers were “not satisfactory” and that both sides needed to start negotiating “seriously”. For the Telegraph this was an example of “all the unaccountable arrogance that has put so many people off the EU”. It concluded that the pair “could cause irreparable diplomatic damage unless they are brought to heel” by elected European leaders.

Yet Jean-Claude Juncker’s and Michel Barnier’s comments ring true. The recent UK position paper on a new EU-UK customs relationship promises “innovative and untested” solutions, but raises far more questions than answers. Similarly, proposals on the Irish border would heap bureaucracy on legitimate businesses, give smugglers an easier ride and do nothing to “control our borders” as Brexiters promised. Other (elected) European leaders have pointed out the same contradictions in the British position, most notably Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – a man with every motivation to find a workable solution and avoid petty squabbling.

Another Telegraph article promises to reveal “how (the) EU uses ‘dirty tricks’ on social media to wage Brexit war on Britain”. The paper’s gripe is that top EU officials post tweets about the negotiations saying things like: “#EU positions clear and transparent since day one”; “More ambition, clarity and guarantees needed than in today’s UK position”; and “Our duty is to minimise uncertainty, disruption caused by Brexit”.

As the Telegraph admits, this is hardly akin to “Donald Trump’s impulsive megaphone diplomacy” – but apparently that’s what makes it “potentially far more deadly”. The article goes on to note David Davis’s “relatively benign tone” on Twitter, saying he’s “rarely tweeted since starting his job” as Brexit secretary. But does this not back up Brussels’s point on transparency? The EU laid out its negotiating position months ago, while the silence emanating from Downing Street – at least until the recent position papers – has been deafening.

This week the Telegraph also “revealed” that Barnier’s salary was “£72,000 a year more” than Davis’s. Although top EU officials’ salaries are public knowledge, the Telegraph headline declared the sum was “sparking outrage”. The only sign of this outrage in the article, however, was a quote from Nigel Farage.

The tone of the pro-Brexit press plays well for the government. Anonymous British officials can call Barnier “unhelpful” and get a front-page splash. The newspapers will print the government’s demand that the EU should be “flexible and imaginative”, a phrase carefully ignoring the way many British proposals are half-finished or don’t make sense. The government counters the refusal of the Davis team to outline a sum or methodology for Britain’s ‘divorce bill’ with the argument that the EU hasn’t proposed anything on Northern Ireland yet – despite the cost of withdrawal clearly being the most contentious issue on the table. This will all help the government offset the blame when things go sour.

True to form, the right-wing press is abiding by its decades-old rule: if something’s going wrong, blame Brussels. It was this kind of pernicious messaging which got us into Brexit in the first place. Sadly it persists and could yet make things worse.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

10 Responses to “Teeing up the Brexit blame game”

  • Heaven forbid that the media in the UK accept that they have played any part in creating this toxic situation. One can only hope that when it does go sour, there will be honest voices available to point to the lies and the untruths.

  • Credit where credit’s due. The Telegraph also published the following letter from me on 28th August:
    Is it not time for this farce to be brought to an end? A time for country to be put before party? A time for moral decisions to be taken over skin-saving ones?
    Brexit is unworkable, and the sooner we face up to that the better. The Irish border problem is merely one example.
    The UK is inextricably tied in with the European Union. Separation is impossible to effect. It is time for this government to offer real leadership to the country and to find a way to say stop to this madness, admit that the referendum was inappropriate for a multitude of reasons, and that not only is Brexit impossible to bring about, but it is the worst possible deal on offer, whether soft or hard. The best deal is the one we have now.
    Our MPs – of all parties- should do what they are elected to do: take the right and best decisions for the good of the country.
    It is not even as if there was a massive majority in favour of leaving the EU. Less than a 4 percentage point difference is not sufficient to trigger massive constitutional change, especially in circumstances where no-one could, or indeed can now, have any idea of either the outcome or the means.
    It is time for our MPs to get together, face up and do the right, sensible and pragmatic thing for the UK. The EU is not perfect, but it is the best union for the UK and the world.

  • The next round of EU talks runs from 25 – 28 September (Mon – Thur). The Conservative Party Conference runs 1 – 4 October (Sun – Wed).
    Back in London on the Thursday, up to Manchester on the Sunday: Davis doesn’t have much time to prepare his defence on his performance at the Brexit negotiations.
    I think the “EU is to blame” game is Davis getting his retaliation in first to prevent a hostile response by the conference to his speech. He knows that the audience for his speech will be strongly pro-Brexit and he needs them onside for any leadership bid he is going to make in, say, the next 12 months.
    In the same way May is managing expectations with her “I’m not a quitter” speech in Japan. She’s betting that the Conference will warm to this message and give her a relatively easy ride despite her losing the Tories their majority in June. It might get her through the next 12 months with membership on her side.

  • Quite simple. The Brexiteers will continue to blame the EU, just as they have for decades been blaming Europe for almost all the nations ills. They are unable to think beyond blaming the EU.

    • I’m sure they will try to blame the EU. Whether an electorate that was promised a simple path to a bright future lets them get away with it is another matter.

  • “It concluded that the pair “could cause irreparable diplomatic damage unless they are brought to heel” by elected European leaders.”

    This seems to be the Brexiteers spin, but the reality is that Barnier et al are acting with the full support of other European leaders. Even now the Brexiteers are trying to push the line that the EU is some unaccountable quango. Perhaps it’s time elected European leaders made this clear.

  • It was foreseeable that when the sunny optimism of the Brexiteers that the EU would fall over itself to grant the UK whatever kind of trade deal it wanted because “it needs us more than we need it” was exposed by events for the nonsense it always was, they would blame the disaster on the malign EU. But they can hardly escape their responsibility for putting the UK in the current situation. As a member of the EU the UK was well able to defend its interests. Outside the EU (and for the purposes of the Brexit negotiations the UK is already outside the EU) it is at the mercy of the EU. Funny kind of “taking back control”!