Something’s bothering me about Brexit.
The main thrust of Johnson’s time in Number 10 has been ‘getting Brexit done’, which I have always taken to mean ‘getting Brexit off the front pages so we can get back to some more interesting/important thing’.
This has manifested itself in Johnson’s lack of engagement with the detail (or even much of the broad sweep) of negotiations for both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade & Cooperation Agreement, in the lack of desire to get into impact assessments or comprehensive contingency planning/implementation activity, and in the general appeals to looking past whatever problems there are now to the bright, sunlit uplands, etc.
Emblematic in this was the decision after the 2019 general election to banish the very use of the word ‘Brexit’ in government communications, a decision that lasted until late 2020 and the need to ramp up work for the post-transition period required using the vocabulary that everyone else has stuck with.
In short, this government has appeared to have placed a lot of emphasis on moving on and getting away from the dramas of the May years. And the Cameron years, for that matter.
So why then has 2021 been so marked by an antagonistic approach to EU relations by the government?
Whether it’s not recognising the EU’s ambassador, or being holier-than-you on the Art.16 issue, or failing to demonstrably comply with the implementation requirements in Northern Ireland, the government appears to be taking a path of most resistance.
That, in turn, generates more the headlines and comment that it seemed previously to have shunned. Especially as it is the UK that regularly has to make a subsequent u-turn.
So what gives?
Firstly, let’s just think about what some logics of how a UK-EU relationship might work, in theory.
If the UK were to be very positive and friendly, then you’d expect a close relationship, with much effort to make the most of the opportunities presented to work closely and to find common ground.
But if the UK were fundamentally distrusting, then what? Well, the formal relationship would be as thin as possible, with none of the warm words, but you’d still expect that there was a rigorous and scrupulous implementation.
The reason would be that if you don’t trust the other lot, then you want to make sure that you cover your back. That means not leaving any gaps in what you do that could then be used against you, down the line, by them. If you have an agreement, you stick to it, and you make sure they stick to it too. Which means you hold them as close as if you were friends, just to make it harder for them to start pulling fast ones on you.
Again, this is about substantive action, rather than rhetoric: just as the US and USSR waged a war of words from 1945, that did not preclude arms-control treaties (with comprehensive inspection protocols).
Clearly, the EU and UK are not nearly in the same situation as that: armed conflict is no more on the table than are fundamentally different ideologies on the nature of the state and economic organisation. But the point remains that we might expect the practice of relations to be running more smoothly than it has.
Two main thoughts come to mind on why.
The first is the more prosaic explanation. The UK government might feel that having secured the treaties, they have both a pretty robust legal relationship with the EU and a much less interested British public. In that sense, job done. These current issues are minor compared to the high drama of 2017-9 and it’s good to keep the European issue alive to try and show the core constituency the value of having left.
In this view, this is just the rough and tumble of politics, trying to make a bit of local capital where possible. If you score a point, then good for pumping up your voters; if you don’t, then it’s not that serious and it wasn’t as if the EU’s going to just walk away from it all.
The second takes this to a deeper critique of British European policy, one that I’ve made before. In the absence of a strategic intention, the government lacks any clear direction for its dealings with the EU, and so deals with points on a case-by-case basis. Often that generates unintended consequences.
Now this shouldn’t, by itself, generate antagonistic behaviour, but we also know that part of the Johnsonian view of Brexit has been as an opportunity to new things with the country. All that’s lacking is clarity on what those things should be.
In this context, antagonism might make more sense, by preventing the emergence of steady-as-she-goes, pragmatic engagement. If EU relations are sinking back into mundanity, then there’s a risk of creating new path-dependencies that might preclude the bold action that Number 10 wants to take down the line. So keeping as much in the air as possible could be useful, at the strategic level.
What ties together these two ideas is their lack of grounding in the world and a failure to recognise the consequences of actions. Crisis management as a mode of policy-making is not simply a way of dealing with the situation in hand, but is also a product of dealing with it in that way: there is a vicious cycle of production and re-production.
Part of the reason the UK got to leaving was a failure to appreciate the potential consequences of holding a referendum in the first place, and an underestimation of the impact of prior rhetoric.
All of which leads us to wonder whether any lessons from the past have been learnt. On that, we might expect that things will continue to be problematic for as long as it takes for the strategic impasse lasts.
Don’t hold your breath.