There are a number of interesting things happening in European politics right now.
In the UK, two “big beast” Brexiteers, David Davies and Boris Johnson have resigned over the Chequers agreement that some say was foisted on the UK cabinet at the end of last week. Boris Johnson is well known outside the UK as the ex-Mayor of London. He is a showman who, many people believe, chose the Brexit side of the referendum debate at the last minute for personal political reasons rather than anything else. To be very fair, his pronouncements on the subject post-referendum suggest that he is wedded to the Brexit – and specifically the hard Brexit – cause.
Johnson will fulminate and chunter from the back benches and in the newspapers and will bide his time until his next opportunity. The truth of the matter is that he is too much of a thorn in too many people’s fleshes to ever make the leader of the Tory party. A bit like Winston Churchill in the 1930s; but look what happened to him. We must earnestly hope that no such crisis (the rise of Nazism in Germany) overtakes us to the extent that we need someone like him to lead the country.
Of more immediate concern perhaps is the resignation of David Davies who feels that he has been side-lined to the extent that he was hardly involved at all in the drafting of the Chequers draft position. The UK may live to regret this resignation, as Davies, of all the frontline politicians in the UK today, does at least have real negotiating experience.
The hard-line Brexit camp, whose standard bearer is perhaps Jacob Rees-Mogg, is threatening “a resignation a day” to keep the pressure on the government. This seems spectacularly short-sighted as a tactic. The prime minister, Theresa May, had tried to be inclusive in the make up of her original cabinet, including people from both camps. The problem here is simply put: there is not a majority in favour of Brexit in either of the two major UK political parties’ parliamentary representatives. They are trying to deliver a Brexit that most do not actually believe is in the best interests of the country, but deliver it they feel they must, given the referendum result.
The Chequers position is essentially a set of objectives. Unlike most negotiations, this one is being played out in the full glare of publicity, so the other side will know the UK’s objectives (and vice versa) well before the actual face-to-face negotiations start. At least we now have a slightly clearer picture of what is and what is not important to the UK government. There is some give and take and – herein lay the problem for the “hard Brexit” camp – there is some flexibility built into their opening position.
The EU has been clear from the very start that they will not agree to “cherry-picking” benefits from an a la carte menu. Any concessions must be linked and there are some that are only open to full members of the EU. The “hard Brexit” camp point to the deal that Switzerland has negotiated with the EU but they forget that Switzerland was never in the EU and no example had to be made to the Swiss to discourage other member states from leaving.
Furthermore, the EU has always been somewhat inflexible. The architect of this whole crisis, one David Cameron (and he left the building very quickly indeed once he saw what he had set in motion) tried and failed to extract any worthwhile concessions from the EU in the period leading up to the referendum.
Why was this? Well, I believe that when you have “people of faith”, who believe absolutely in their position to the point that they just cannot see the other party’s differing point of view, it is difficult to negotiate with them. Take Jacob Rees-Mogg on the hard Brexit side; take Jean Claude Juncker on the “arch euro-file” side. Each will find/ have found it impossible to make concessions to the other side. Add to that the fact that neither has ever had to negotiate their way out of a paper bag (both are career politicians more used to the cut and thrust of debate than trading in a negotiation) and you begin to see the problem. Neither understand that very basic negotiating truism that sometimes you have to make a concession to the other side in order that the deal is easier to “sell” to their constituents. For that reason, neither (nor their acolytes) should be allowed anywhere near a negotiating table.
Let’s add to the mix the fact that “the Donald” is sniping from afar prior to his visit to the UK later in the week. “The UK is in turmoil,” he opined. “Boris Johnson is a good friend of mine and I may very well meet up with him when I am over…”. Not a very helpful contribution if you are desperately trying to keep a government together, as Theresa May is.
That said, maybe both sides in the Brexit debate could learn a thing or two from “the negotiator”. On a totally different topic, the NATO defence alliance, the European elite is bristling at the way the president has linked continued US military of the NATO alliance to each European country actually spending 2% of its GDP – per the agreement that all signed up to. “How dare he?” was their considered response delivered by some sarcastic comments delivered in the form of an open letter.
His logic is simple: persuasion has failed; continued and continual bleating by successive US presidents has not worked; time to bring the parties to the table by exercising a sanction.
Negotiators smiled at the reality check. Welcome to the negotiating table. Your free lunches are now over.