3 March 2020

The EU is blind to its own failing tactics


The next round of EU-UK negotiations have begun. Now Britain has left the EU, the aim of these new talks is to work out what kind of relationship we will have once the transition period ends in ten months time.

Given their opening position, it’s clear that the EU thinks these talks are about the extent to which there is going to be continued regulatory alignment. If the UK wants open access to EU markets, they say, the UK must agree to be bound by EU regulatory oversight – a so-called ‘level playing field’.

In addition, the EU appears to want these talks to be about continued access to UK fishing waters as a common resource.

But in reality these negotiations are not going to decide any of that. Whatever is notionally on the agenda when the two sides meet, there is zero chance of the UK agreeing to be bound by EU rules. Boris Johnson has made that very clear on repeated occasions, and, having won a landslide majority in December, is now able to back those words up without fear of Parliament blowing him off course.

What will be decided – even if the EU negotiating team cannot see it – is the degree to which the UK remains geopolitically aligned to the EU. What now sits in the balance in the meetings between Michel Barnier and Boris Johnson’s envoy, David Frost, is not the extent to which the UK follows EU digital regulation (we won’t). It’s a question of what commitments we might have to EU allies on matters of defence, security and foreign policy.

It’s a remarkable failure of statecraft that key decision makers on the EU side don’t seem to be able to see this – and it’s worth trying to work out why.

Having spent much of my adult life campaigning to get the UK out of the EU, I have noticed a pattern of behaviour by the Euro establishment.

Each time the EU side has been presented with what you might call British concerns about the nature of our relations with them, they start off by failing to take us seriously.  Rather than address our concerns, the Brussels side seemed to expend its efforts into brushing them aside.

An obvious example of this was when Tony Blair, hardly a noted Eurosceptic, warned back in the late 1990s that the EU was overly centralised. Reform, he understood, would be needed to make the block become more competitive.

How did the EU establishment respond? Blair was fobbed off with the so-called Lisbon Agenda, which was supposed to be an ambitious reform initiative, but which saw no powers actually passed back to member states.

Something very similar happened a decade later when David Cameron asked the EU to help him win his referendum. Might the EU, he politely enquired, offer him something that might allow him to persuade the British electorate to vote to remain? They gave him nothing of substance.

No doubt EU negotiators saw this as a win. Sitting in Vote Leave’s campaign office, when Cameron came back empty handed, we knew that what might be a tactical victory for Brussels was a strategic victory for us. And so it proved.

Then came Theresa May – and again, we saw precisely the same EU approach. Team Barnier set out to play hardball against Team May. Given the low calibre of his opponent, it was hardly surprising that Barnier achieved a string of tactical wins, on everything from the sequencing of the talks to the Irish border.

But what has this dismissive approach produced more broadly?

Had Blair achieved any EU reform of substance, he might have seen off us Eurosceptics. Instead we started to move from the margins of the debate into the mainstream. Giving Cameron a deal that allowed his government more control over UK borders would have undermined our campaign to ‘take back control’. Instead the EU’s tactical ‘win’ gave Vote Leave’s insurgent message much more traction.

If Barnier had offered a concession over the Irish backstop early on, Theresa May could well have got her Brexit-in-name-only deal through. What the EU helped ensure instead was a hardening of attitudes in the UK. Tory MPs I had been unable to persuade to lift a finger during the referendum campaign itself began to define themselves as die hard No Dealers. An overtly pro-Brexit party was then elected to office with a massive Commons majority.

Imagine if at any point of the past two decades the EU side had had the imagination to be more emollient? And where, you might ponder, is there any emollience today?

It is striking how, since Boris’ emphatic election win, we have yet to see any EU leader of stature – France’s Macron, or Germany’s Merkel, or even Holland’s Rutte – make any sort of set-piece, conciliatory speech aimed at the British people. Instead they leave it to Michel Barnier to continually threaten and cajole. They are blind to the effects of it all.

The offer that the EU is putting on the table in these latest post-Brexit talks – de facto associate EU membership – is what it ought to have offered three or four years ago, had they wanted a deal. The stance that the EU will likely find itself taking in three or four years hence – that the UK should remain supportive of the EU as a geopolitical ally in its dealings with the wider world and various supranational bodies – is the one it ought to be taking today.

But what explains the EU’s tin-eared approach?

Brussels consistently misreads Britain partly because they tend to listen to the wrong sort of Brit. Before the EU referendum, they left it to Europhiles to explain Euroscepticism to them. Since Vote Leave won, they have left it to some of the most ardent Remainers – people like Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, ex-Foreign Office mandarins, pro-Brussels public affairs lobbyists – to explain why Britain voted leave. No wonder they understand so little.

Back when I was an MP, campaigning for an EU referendum, I used to get invited to a series of annual conferences organised by the foreign policy establishment in Britain, France and Germany; the Koenigswinter conferences and the British-French Colloque.

I was, I assumed, put on the list as a token Eurosceptic. Little I had to say about the need to leave the European Union was taken seriously. Indeed, my hosts often responded to what I had to say with a rolling of eyes and perhaps a little smirk. The various Cameroons and Foreign Office officials on the guest list, by contrast, would be listened to in respectful silence. Whose judgement about the future direction the UK would take proved more prescient?

Until the EU side stops listening to the wrong people, it stands little chance of changing course. Its actions will, I now suspect, push Britain towards precisely the full-scale realignment it claims not to want.

Treat the UK as a hostile state, if you choose to, Mrs Merkel. Have M. Barnier subject us to endless rounds of bullying, if that is your preference, Messrs Macron and Rutte. But don’t then assume that British soldiers or satellite technology will automatically side with you in your dealings with Iran, Russia, Turkey or Libya. Or, indeed, the United States.

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Douglas Carswell is a former MP and co-founded Vote Leave. He runs the Centre for Economic Education