The point of departure: Lionel Barber on Brexit and beyond
In the Brexit saga, where many untruths have been told, nothing speaks more clearly than the official photograph marking the second day of negotiations between the British and EU delegations in Brussels.
On the right is an all-male trio: David Davis, the former SAS reservist and longtime Eurosceptic bruiser elevated to the cabinet as Brexit secretary after the 2016 referendum. Davis is grinning broadly alongside Olly Robbins, his chief civil servant, and Sir Tim Barrow, permanent representative to the EU. (Robbins later took charge of the talks, only to be vilified by hardline Tories for selling out his country. He will shortly join Goldman Sachs.)
On the EU side are two women and one man, Michel Barnier, the Gaullist from the Savoy Alps, a former French foreign minister and EU commissioner. Pen poised, the silver-haired Frenchman is flanked by his deputy Sabine Weyand and strategy chief Stephanie Riso, each with bulging dossiers conspicuously absent on the British side. Barnier combines detail with stamina. He reminds visitors that he spent 10 years of his life preparing to deliver the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Two and a half years on, and many recriminations later, the impression of bluffers outmatched by hardened Eurocrats is hard to dispel. Whatever the final verdict on Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal, Brexit has been a sobering experience for British statecraft. Heady talk about splitting the Europeans and isolating the Irish has come to nothing. Now Johnson has fired the starting gun on a general election on December 12, in effect a referendum on leaving the EU, the biggest shift in economic and foreign policy in half a century.
Brexit has dominated the national conversation, dividing families, generations and regions. We’ve had our moments at the FT, especially on the merits of a second referendum. Too often the trivial has intruded: the precise date of the UK’s departure, the interminable extensions and, lately, the pyrotechnic posturing from Downing Street. Above all, Brexit has been about the past, about sins real and imagined in Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe. About the future, next to nothing constructive has been said.
Brexit has been up close and personal for me. I spent six years as the FT’s Brussels bureau chief between 1992 and 1998. It was a life-changing experience, a chance to document Europe’s transformation after the end of the cold war: the launch of economic and monetary union and the prospective enlargement of the EU to former communist countries to the east.
This month, I paid a last pre-Brexit visit to Brussels. My host is Jean-Claude Piris, an old friend who served for 22 years as the EU’s top lawyer. A permanent presence at dozens of European summits, he has seen everyone — Thatcher, Kohl, Mitterrand, Blair, Chirac, Merkel — in action.
He also knows every nook and cranny in every EU treaty, from Maastricht to Lisbon via Amsterdam. We agree on the essentials. Britain’s departure from the EU is an act of self-harm, a strategic mistake that will leave the UK marginalised and the EU sorely diminished. Yet there is scant desire in European capitals to reverse course, still less to back a second referendum. Mentally, people have moved on.
Even so, Piris observes, the world has changed since the 2016 referendum. America under Donald Trump is overtly hostile to the EU. Transactional diplomacy has supplanted alliances. Europe finds itself squeezed between the US and China, with a menacing Russia on its eastern flank. Where does the UK sit?
The UK once exerted serious influence in Brussels. From Margaret Thatcher on, the UK defended budget discipline and free trade; it championed enlargement to the east. “When was the UK recently outvoted?” says Piris. “Once, on bankers’ bonuses!”
From my perch in Brussels, I witnessed ministers such as the clubbable Ken Clarke and John Gummer playing deft hands, supported by Sir John Kerr, Britain’s chain-smoking ambassador. In the Maastricht treaty negotiations, Kerr helped to secure opt-outs on monetary union, workers’ rights and justice and home affairs. To borrow a phrase, the British ended up having their cake and eating it.
Britain was the useful troublemaker, never afraid of speaking truth to the French and Germans, the big boys in the club. If diplomacy is about “manipulating the antagonisms”, the British were honest (and at times less than honest) power brokers.
So how did it all go so badly wrong? A starting point is Hugo Young’s book This Blessed Plot, a magisterial account of postwar British ambivalence toward European integration. “Britain struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid,” he wrote.
But there is another side to the story: the rewriting of contemporary history, chiefly a Eurosceptic narrative whereby Britain is the victim of French-led plots or German ambitions for hegemony on the continent. This was true of the Thatcher era, and the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown years, from 1997 to 2010, when spin-doctors fed tabloids their pound of flesh. But the roots go deeper.
Johnson cannot claim to be the founding father of Euroscepticism. That title probably goes to Enoch Powell, followed by the Tory backwoodsman Sir William Cash. But Johnson deserves a special place in history, irrespective of what he may achieve in future.
As Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph (we overlapped), Johnson gave Euroscepticism a saucy, popular appeal. He wrote tall stories about new regulations banning bendy bananas. His banter about Jacques Delors, the stiff philosopher king and longtime president of the European Commission, was better than most. He was also highly competitive, once upbraiding me for having the impertinence to scoop him ahead of a summit, forcing him to follow up on a story which had the advantage of being true!
Johnson was never a Europhobe nor did he, to my knowledge, ever talk about Britain leaving Europe. But his message — repeated this month in his post-Brexit deal address to the House of Commons — has remained the same. “I don’t think I’ve heard a single member [of parliament] call for an ever closer union or ever deeper integration or a federal destiny — mon pays Europe”, Johnson told MPs. “And there is a whole side of that debate that you hear regularly in other European capitals that is simply absent from our national conversation and I don’t think that has changed much in the past 30 years.”
Johnson’s conclusion: the UK has always comprised of “half-hearted Europeans”, despite its love and respect for European culture and civilisation, its sense of “shared destiny” and its continuing commitment to be a guarantor of peace and democracy on the continent.
I have no problem with this portrait of national ambivalence to Europe. Britain did not suffer the trauma of defeat and occupation in the second world war. As an imperial power, it stood apart from postwar political and economic reconstruction in Europe. Britain enjoyed the Commonwealth and, until Suez, special status with America.
My issue — as a wholehearted European — is how Johnson and others have exaggerated the federalist gremlin, ensuring it has loomed ever larger in the British psyche, defying political reality.
The EU remains a hybrid, a mix of national sovereignty in defence, foreign policy and taxation, balanced against supranational powers in competition policy and monetary policy for the 19 members of the eurozone. Maastricht, subsequently dismissed as an abomination, embodied this compromise which still holds good today. Minus the UK, the 27 members of the EU are simply too numerous and too diverse to form a “United States of Europe”.
Yet the Tory party under successive prime ministers from Thatcher to Cameron has wilfully ignored the facts. Its constant mistake has been to misread the Germans, especially Chancellor Angela Merkel, and their enthusiasm for “political union”.
Time and again, the British have either assumed she was prepared to take a great leap ahead on integration or that she was willing to help the British out of a tight spot of their own making. Even at the height of her powers (and they are waning as she enters her own twilight zone), Merkel’s default position has been to keep her options open and defend the German national interest.
Several Eurocrats interviewed for this article agreed that the Brussels summit in December 2011 marked a turning point for British diplomacy. France and Germany were battling to secure agreement on a “fiscal compact” to buttress the eurozone after the global financial crisis. In the early hours of the morning, Cameron, without forewarning, produced demands to protect the City of London and threatened a veto if he was rebuffed.
European leaders, including Merkel, were outraged. They saw this as a domestic gambit to appease Eurosceptics on a matter of singular importance to eurozone members. So they simply ignored Cameron and secured an agreement among themselves, outside the EU treaties. The UK’s bluff had been called.
The following Saturday, I bumped into Cameron at the 75th birthday party of a mutual friend in the grounds of Windsor castle. “Don’t be too hard on me,” said the prime minister, visibly shattered.
From there, it has been downhill fast. A Conservative party in thrall to Nigel Farage. Cameron’s botched Brexit referendum. The dismal premiership of Theresa May, humiliated at home and in Europe. A Tory civil war without mercy.
British influence has evaporated at a speed that has shocked the most hardened Eurocrats. “The most surreal aspect [of Brexit] is that your political class has gone rogue,” says a veteran Brussels official, citing the breakdown of co-operation between ministers and civil servants, once Britain’s greatest strength. “There is a complete disconnect with the politicians who don’t want to hear things any more. You now have the worst possible opposition (Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party) and a terrible government. Imagine if that happened to Germany.”
The UK government has given up in Brussels, say EU diplomats. Ministers either pursue an empty chair policy or are “empty suits” contributing nothing to debate. Dominic Raab, the macho foreign secretary, made no friends when he rushed into a recent informal weekend meeting of EU foreign ministers, made a cursory intervention on Hong Kong and rushed out again. “Needlessly offensive,” says an official who was present.
When Johnson finally achieved his lifetime ambition of high office, many a Eurocrat caught their breath. They remember his xenophobic wisecracks, especially the one comparing then French president François Hollande to a Colditz guard dealing out “punishment beatings” in retaliation for Brexit.
The mot du jour for the new prime minister is “malin” — cunning or sly. But although they don’t trust him, many seem to like him. His charm is an asset, a relief from President Emmanuel Macron’s imperious style.
There is grudging respect, too, for the premier’s strategy, squeezing Tory Remainers and Eurosceptic “Spartans” into supporting the withdrawal agreement. His ditching of the Democratic Unionist party displayed a killer instinct. After May, Johnson looks a more serious proposition.
Several interviewed said they admired Johnson’s performance at the G7 summit in Biarritz in August. He backed Europe on Iran, defended the World Trade Organization and sought to bridge differences with Trump’s America First trade policy. After his Brexit deal, he spoke passionately to EU leaders about his schoolboy days in Brussels and his daughter singing to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the European anthem. “It was a beautiful moment,” says one mildly seduced Eurocrat.
Yet all this counts for nothing if Johnson is unable to get his deal through the House of Commons. It matters even less if he fails to forge a new relationship with the EU that protects the UK economy, given 44 per cent of total UK trade is with the continent.
The dilemma is how to reconcile the European imperative with Johnson’s vision of a new “global Britain” outside the EU’s single market and customs union. The dozen or so top diplomats and officials I saw in Brussels were united on one point: there is an inescapable trade-off between access to the single market and divergence from its rules and standards.
“There can be no cherry-picking,” said one. “No access to our market without access to your waters,” said another, referring to the vexed question of fisheries. In short, the level playing field in Europe’s single market must be preserved without exception.
Johnson has boasted that he can achieve the most ambitious trade deal ever in record time, that is before the end of 2020 when the transition of current arrangements between the UK and the EU comes to an end. This is pie in the sky, say EU officials.
In their estimation, the best Johnson can hope for is a “bare bones” free trade agreement with zero tariffs and zero quotas — but with regulatory checks at borders, which in turn negates the friction-free trade UK-based business desperately wants to preserve.
The omens are not good. Even Anglophile countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have been unnerved by talk of creating a “Singapore on the Thames”, watering down Euro-regulations and unleashing competitive animal spirits. “The UK is too big and too close to the continent,” says one Brexit negotiator, “it could be too successful.”
Such sentiment reinforces suspicions among the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the pinstriped Tory revolutionary who has harrumphed about Britain’s “vassal” status in the EU single market and customs union. But hardened negotiators such as Barnier — who will be back at the table next year — are adamant that Europe will not be taken for suckers. “Zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping,” he has told colleagues.
Ideology is about to meet political reality. The UK will have to make hard choices. Singapore-style deregulation may appeal to one wing of the Brexit-voting coalition in the Tory shires, less so to the economically vulnerable areas.
So will the UK choose a Norway-style position in cleaving close to Europe, following EU regulations and standards at the expense of an independent trade policy? Or will it choose to be a junior partner to the US, hoping for a more reliable White House successor to Trump?
At home, Brexit continues to redefine domestic politics. Johnson’s deal creates a border in the Irish Sea, bringing unification between north and south of Ireland closer. Scotland, under Nicola Sturgeon, is pushing for a second independence referendum. Brexit has uncorked a new strain of English nationalism. No less than the unity of the UK is at stake.
On the day of this month’s Brexit agreement, late in the afternoon, my cell phone rang. It was Boris Johnson.
He was studiously courteous, inquiring if I had a few seconds to discuss his deal. Well, prime minister, it’s going to take a bit longer than that, I said.
Johnson was well on top of his brief. After 10 minutes of back and forth, it was time to turn to the world after Brexit. To govern is to choose. Which way would he jump?
“The choice is not a binary one,” he replied. In his mind, everything is sui generis. The UK could back Europe on foreign policy issues such as Iran, take a Singapore option on boosting the pharma sector and carve out bespoke trade deals with America and Europe. We agree to disagree.
The “pick and mix” policy will not pass muster, not when it comes down to the detail. Brexit is arguably the most complex divorce in history. Negotiating a fresh relationship with Europe will require more than bluff. That snapshot of team UK and team Barnier should act as a reminder.
The UK desperately needs a new narrative, one that reunites the country and sets a course for whole- and half-hearted Europeans alike. Johnson’s snap election is a high-risk breakout strategy, which could produce further fragmentation rather than give him a clear mandate. Whatever the outcome, hard choices are unavoidable. And we have only reached the point of departure.
Lionel Barber is editor of the Financial Times