Back in December I was in the ANA Intercontinental in Tokyo enjoying a traditional breakfast of scones and gruel when I overheard two gentlemen at the table next to me discussing Britain’s impending divorce from the European Union. Or, more accurately, I was actively eavesdropping as a Spanish man browbeat an English gentleman about his thoughts on Brexit. Just the month before Theresa May had unveiled her Draft Withdrawal Plan, which nobody liked, and in early December she was on her way to the European Union to essentially beg for some concessions. The British gentleman, in the way that British people do before they start drinking, attempted to politely deflect the Spanish man’s questions until finally his ire bubbled over and he replied brusquely: “May is going to go to the EU and ask for concessions and they will grumble about it, but ultimately give them to her.” Why would they possibly give her concessions on points they had said were strictly non-negotiable? “Because they don’t want the deal to fall apart.”
He was, of course, totally wrong. The EU told May that the deal she had was all she was ever going to get and to politely go pound sand. Viral video emerged, apparently shot by Martin Scorsese, of May sniping at Jean-Claude Juncker. But this British man’s detachment from reality really gets at the heart of what has been driving Brexit from the very beginning: the British vastly over-estimated their bargaining position. And astonishingly, they continue to do so TO THIS DAY, despite the clear and indisputable fact that the EU has since the very beginning held all the cards in these negotiations. Somehow this has failed to penetrate in the place where it matters most: the UK.
I say all of this coming from a country, the United States, with a distinguished tradition over over-estimating its own positions and creating self-inflicted disasters (which sometimes also spill over and threaten the entire world) so I consider myself something of an expert on the pitfalls and stupidity of Western imperial hubris. So let’s look at the basic facts, and how we got here. As is well known by now, the UK voted to leave the European Union based on a bunch of lies and gobbledygook. During the referendum a basic truth was papered over with nativist rhetoric and appeals to national pride: the UK needs the EU far more than the EU needs the UK. That is a dynamic that is set in stone, and it’s not going to change no matter how many British people believe otherwise.
After two years of negotiations, May’s government came back with a withdrawal agreement where the European Union essentially said: “Yes, you can Leave and pursue your self-defeating immigration policies if you like. But you cannot place a hard border on Northern Ireland. And all matters related to trade and commerce will essentially remain unchanged, to be negotiated later. In the meantime, you’ll still be subject to EU regulations when it comes to trade but you’ll have no political representation in EU institutions or input on what those regulations are.” This is, objectively, a shit deal for the UK but how could any different outcome have been expected given the UK’s shit bargaining positioning? It’s also important to acknowledge that the truly hard part of this process has not even started yet. The withdrawal agreement merely says they will negotiate the really difficult things, like what the economic relationship will look like, somewhere down the road. In the meantime, while they’re doing that, the British need to play by European rules, rules over which they’ve abdicated the ability to shape in any meaningful way.
It should be no surprise that this was the deal the EU offered. It should also be no surprise that they have stuck to their guns and said they will not negotiate. Take this deal, or get nothing. They can credibly take this negotiating position because, and again this should be as obvious as a supernova, they have had all the leverage from the very beginning. The EU is not, and never were, going to give the UK what they wanted which was access to the single market but closed borders and regulatory autonomy. To think that this outcome was ever in the realm of possibility betrays a hubris and an arrogance so unbridled, so monstrously deformed, that it defies comprehension. And yet, Parliament and the British people in general have been unable to come to terms with this reality. They keep clinging to this fantasy that, when it comes down to the wire, the Europeans will see the light, realize how much they actually do need the UK, and come around to the British point of view.
That is the delusion that informed that British man’s ridiculous ideas in Tokyo back in December. “In the end the EU will give in because they have to” seems to go the thinking. “Because they don’t want us to walk away.” This is the same mentality that informed press coverage of Theresa May’s speech last night, during which she essentially said nothing of importance and wasted everyone’s time announcing she had requested a 3-month extension from the EU. In the British coverage of her announcement, most commentators were focused on how it would play out domestically in Parliament. There was an implicit belief that the EU would, after some grumbling, grant the extension even though Donald Tusk said earlier in the day that they would not unless something fundamentally changed in Britain’s domestic politics.
Once again, all the cards are with the Europeans. If one single country doesn’t want to go along with this extension, then it’s over and there is no deal. And, the truth is, there is little reason to believe that the situation will be fundamentally different 3 months from now. There is little incentive (unless May’s deal miraculously passes in the next 8 days) for EU member states to grant this extension and find themselves in the same position all over again in June. And yet this fallacy persists, quite strongly, that well of course the EU will give us the extension because, well, they don’t want to lose us. Just as that man in Tokyo believed that of course they would change the withdrawal agreement because, well, they don’t want to lose us. Somehow, preposterously and existing outside the realm of all reason, the British still believe that they have leverage in this game.
But at some point, they will have to reach deep and acknowledge that they do not and never did have any leverage, that they over-estimated their bargaining position from the outset and then clung to that delusion despite all evidence to the contrary. Pretty soon the extent of that delusion is going to become obvious to the entire world when the EU calls them on their bluff. Unfortunately, by the time the British acknowledge and accept this fundamental truth, which has been obvious for nearly 3 years now to anyone with even a remote attachment to reality, it is likely already going to be too late.