Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford CMG discusses the ongoing absurdity of the hokey-cokey of Brexit
In honour of Brexit, I have invented a fine new international acronym: WGO.
Not the World Gangster Organisation. Nor the Women Gender Option. Not even (yet) the Western Gulag Office.
WGO stands for the core question that needs to be posed by an intelligent person when looking at any diplomatic problem or negotiation or conundrum. Namely this: what’s going on?
As I type this new Diplomat magazine piece on a rainy Sunday 13 October morning, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is locked in intense negotiations with other EU leaders to try to agree a formula for delivering Brexit (ie the UK’s departure from the European Union). So, at the end of October 2019 will the UK’s hokey-cokey be ‘In or Out’ or wandering around in the waiting-room dismally ‘shaking it all about’?
Spin doctors are a-spinning. Remainers who demanded a Deal are now muttering that any Boris deal will really be a No-Deal. But is a deal to have No-Deal a deal or a no-deal? In the other camp, Brexiteers are warning that Boris will have to make concessions, without telling us what sort or scale of concessions they might be.
Meanwhile, UK government TV ads and motorway signs exhort us to prepare for new arrangements after Brexit, but are coy on what these ‘arrangements’ might be. But why are we in this grotesque situation?
Diligent readers will recall my two earlier pieces about Brexit in 2016. Before the referendum:
The Ins proclaim ‘steady as she goes’ as the wise, and above all, safe course… We Brits are now so entwined with EU processes that breaking away must cause huge uncertainty and disruption. Does anyone need all that risk, given instability in the Middle East and even in Europe’s own Ukraine?
The Outs reply that EU Europe is no longer a ‘safe space’ but a complacent, declining and badly run area … Much better to take back confident control of our own destiny, thereby freeing resources for ambitious new internal and external policies. You Ins are pessimists – we Outs are optimists!
Then after the referendum I wrote:
Some Leave campaigners wanted Hard Brexit: the UK summarily quits the EU and stands alone as an independent trading nation controlling its own borders. Hurrah. Others wanted Soft Brexit: the UK quits the EU but stays closely entwined with the EU Single Market in either European Economic Area mode (see Norway) or European free Trade Association mode (see Switzerland). Some especially subtle types made the case for Soft Brexit EEA-style now as a wise, pragmatic step towards Hard Brexit later…
The Leave victory in the UK’s referendum really was a Monty Pythonesque Now for Something Completely Different. Different for us Brits, and different for our erstwhile EU partners. How different? We won’t know until we start exploring these new uncharted waters.
Three years later we are frantically splashing around in those waters, trying to work out whether we’re swimming in any sensible direction or just drowning.
When you get right down to WGO, the core issue is that the UK voted against EU membership but for nothing in particular. The Brexit referendum campaign itself offered us nothing but useless rival sloganeering, with the then Prime Minister David Cameron in particular unwilling to say anything sensible about a post-Brexit UK as he wanted to scare us into not choosing one.
Cameron resigned in despair after the referendum Yes vote. Theresa May then did a stunningly bad job in articulating what the UK wanted to do with that vote. The big picture options were Hard Brexit or Soft Brexit or ‘Flaccid’ Brexit:
HARD BREXIT: Singapore or Canada(ie independent states fully outside the EU legal space and having close positive relations with the EU
SOFT BREXIT: Norway or Switzerland (ie independent states that in one way or another agree to be bound by and/or to contribute to EU legal processes, eg via the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association respectively)
FLACCID BREXIT: Mainly Canada, but with Swiss or Norwegian style deals, for instance on fishing or product safety etc.
Was there at any point during Theresa May’s tragic term of office some clear idea graspable by the public of which Brexit she wanted? No.
Amidst all these complications are yet more complications arising from the intricate relationship between the UK and Ireland,and the status of Northern Ireland. If the UK leaves the EU, what happens to EU and non-EU citizens and products arriving at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? How to have normal UK external border checks there while allowing Irish and Northern Irish citizens to freely move to and fro?
Not enough complications? Why not throw in an insanely inept general election lunge by Theresa May followed by useless opportunism from sundry MPs on all sides and greedy power-grabs by the UK courts?
What’s interesting to me, as it must be to the diplomatic community in London watching these grim gyrations, is just how emotionally divisive they have become for us pragmatic Brits. Family members who never previously talked about EU issues now exchange genuinely bitter barbs amidst mutual incomprehension:
“How could you vote for this horrendous Brexit?”
“Why can’t you see that the horror of these Brexit negotiations shows exactly why we had to leave?”
In my own case, some former close FCO friends and colleagues have officially broken off contact with me for voting for Brexit:
“Sorry, but your views are just too painful for us!”
Another former senior FCO colleague Remainer glares at me:
“Why are you taking away my rights to free movement across Europe?”
I snap back:
“Why do you want foreign former communists in EU courts to decide your rights?”
The sheer intensity of such exchanges is striking. WGO? What’s at stake here?
I get it. I can see why someone might fret in a utilitarian sort of way about the strategic disruption and possible real harm that a bungled Brexit will do to our institutions and economy. But (a) that harm will be all the greater if lots of smart people feverishly try to block any conceivable Brexit outcome, and (b) is it really so ignoble to prefer to your country to be more like (say) Canada than (say) Belgium?
The whole business is like an abusive marriage, where spouse A asks for a divorce on the grounds that spouse B is a bullying control freak, and spouse B then uses every possible ploy to make life as difficult as possible for spouse A, thereby vindicating spouse A’s core argument.
Brexit is, of course, part of a wider drama of institutional instability and uncertainty. Dissolving borders. Uncontrolled migration. Invisible cyber warfare. Drones. Trade wars. Populism. Putin. Erdogan. Trump! Aaaaargh!
For many people, the European Union seems to be a sort of psychological security blanket under which like-minded gentle Europeans can snuggle up against all these nasty dark stormy forces. After all, why should we Brits be so arrogant as to demand to decide for ourselves how to respond to these dangerous times? Respect the collective will! Always be ‘umble, Uriah!
My first 2016 Brexit piece here recalled the FCO Leadership Conference back in the mid-2000s addressed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the ensuing Q and A our then Ambassador in Paris warned the Prime Minister that current British policies were going down badly in Paris. Tony Blair said something very subtle:
“Well, at some point you have to make an almost aesthetic choice about what you’re trying to do and what you are.”
Indeed. THAT is what is ‘going on’ here.
Let’s finish with the wise and witty speech by Tajikistan’s Ambassador in London, HE Mr Masud Khalifazoda, at the reception marking Tajikistan’s National Day in September. The Ambassador explains WGO:
“British people really are quite nice! Calm. Sensible. Positive. Helpful! Above all? British people are REASONABLE. My diplomatic problem now? Explaining this to my capital! Every day I send them full reports. How the calm, sensible, positive, helpful, reasonable Brits are dealing with Brexit. No-one in Dushanbe believes me!”