Brexit means Brexit - but what does that mean?

1 Jul 2017

The ease with which a narrative takes hold these days is positively breath-taking. Narratives are well known story devices that are used to explain or to define more complex ideas, even deeply moral and social issues.


By way of illustration, the narrative of the “War on Terror” has been used many times to explain the actions of leaders and nations, even when those actions are deeply questionable.


Similarly, Theresa May’s idiom that “Brexit means Brexit” has been allowed to accumulate narrative credibility even though it is a meaningless phrase that tells us nothing. As though watching the Emperor in his “fine new robes” many of us echo the phrase, assigning to it our own meaning.


Watching the two chief negotiators after day one of the talks was illuminating - Michel Barnier, looked confident and assured; David Davis, no less competent, looked like he had worked very hard that day.


Barnier opened his press-statement outlining in very clear terms what had been achieved and manages to insert clear lines of demarcation for the upcoming negotiations. Davis, on the other hand, opened up by stating that both parties want to achieve the “strongest possible partnership”, and in doing so, he looked like a person who, having asked for a divorce, now seeks reassurance that nothing substantive will change after the separation. The gentle but clear rebuff from Michel Barnier was palpable.


Patrick Forbes’ recent documentary, “Brexit Means Brexit: The Unofficial Version,” re-introduces us the main cast in the unfolding melodrama that is Brexit. It is depressing viewing, revealing a cast that is rudderless and without a shared destination. In the glare of daylight, many of them retreated to the narrative; “Brexit means Brexit”. 


By comparison, Europe seems confident. In the year since Brexit, the EU leaders have clearly improved their game and they, at least, give the impression of a group that have a clear destination in mind for Europe. With almost every utterance by Britain’s so-called Brexiteers, I find myself watching, like Hans Cristian Anderson’s little boy in the street, as the Emperor Brexit is paraded in front of us. And, really, this Emperor has no clothes! 


More recently, Mr. Davis has expressed the view that Britain can achieve a deal that allows for continued access to “free trade” with the EU. Yet, consistently, this possibility has been dismissed, not only by Europeans but even by Mrs. May herself. One wonders then, what exactly is going on. Could it be that faced with the very real possibility of failure, some politicians are beginning the process of introducing us to a new narrative, one where Europe is cast as the punisher of Britain?  


Looked at from that angle, the threat to walk away in the event of a so-called bad deal sets up a narrative to begin the difficult task of explaining such a failure or even a breakdown in negotiations. Both Mrs. May and Mr. Davis have begun to link that outcome with the punishment of Britain by a vengeful Europe. So, either Britain gets the deal it wants or it is being punished by Europe. The problem is that no-one seems to know what deal they want. This newly emerging narrative suggests that Britain has done its best to be reasonable, but Europe seeks to punish it for leaving. This is a clarion call to isolationism and anger. It is dangerous and potentially inflammatory. 


Perhaps recognising the strength of division that now exists in Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby has issued a timely caution, suggesting that Brexit negotiations should be defined by a cross-party commission. Of course, yielding to this request would be tantamount to a Government surrendering power, but the suggestion seems to recognise the very risky path that Britain is currently on.


There is no such thing as an easy or painless break-up. Someone always gets hurt. But most break-ups begin with some sense of where they are headed, or even why they are happening in the first place. Even when there is no definite destination post break-up, there is a palpable sense of injury or unhappiness. This is allowed when it is two people breaking up, even after many years together. But, when you drag a whole country into the argument, that’s a very different order of magnitude.


Might it possibly be that Donald Tusk’s observation that it is not too late to turn back may have more merit than might at first seem likely?


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