“Anything which fails to respect the referendum, or which effectively divides our country in two, would be a bad deal. And I have always said no deal is better than a bad deal.”
This was undoubtedly the most important part of Theresa May’s speech regarding developments at the Salzburg summit this week, and the clearest sign yet that the government really is prepared to countenance leaving the EU without a deal.
Such a threat — that if the EU is not willing to compromise on the binary ‘Norway or Canada’ option, no-deal will become a reality — has only been implied before, never stated in such an overt way. Especially when compared with the humiliation of Wednesday, Thursday’s speech represented a return to the steely, determined “bloody difficult woman” of old, not the post-election ‘dead woman walking’.
It would be easy to say that this bodes well for the rest of the Brexit talks. Comparisons have been made between the ongoing UK-EU negotiations and those of Margaret Thatcher and the EU in 1984, which resulted in the establishment of a 66% rebate of UK contributions to the EU budget. The link made is that it was Thatcher’s steely character and determination which made those negotiations a success. May’s seeming volte-face is therefore exactly what is needed to shock the EU into hammering out a deal.
This is an optimist’s view, no doubt.
Even the most spectacular revival of the ‘British bulldog spirit’ in the spirit of Thatcher is unlikely to completely resolve the technocratic issues which pose the biggest obstacle to reaching a deal, even if it does reinforce the message that progress must be urgently made. Regardless, historians and political journalists tend to exaggerate the extent to which individual personalities influence events such as these. It is important to remember that May is only one member (although certainly the most important) of a negotiating team which also includes Olly Robbins and the ministerial team at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
A more interesting, and perhaps troublesome, parallel is David Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of the UK’s EU settlement in the run up to the 2016 referendum. Even Cameron’s strongest supporters would agree this was an abject failure, despite the promise of a fundamental change in the UK’s position within the EU (and the brief attempt to convince the media and the public that this had happened afterwards).
Very little was achieved in Cameron’s negotiations besides an exemption from an “ever closer union”. The renegotiation was barely mentioned during the referendum campaign. And had it delivered genuine changes on fundamental issues, particularly immigration, the result might have been very different.
This failure was not for a lack of trying. Cameron spent nine months following the 2015 election in intense talks with other EU member states, using every ounce of his political charm to try and convince other leaders to give concessions, particularly Angela Merkel.
According to Tim Shipman’s account of the referendum campaign, All Out War, after twenty-seven hours of negotiations in Brussels without progress, Cameron said to Andrew Cooper, an adviser to the Remain campaign, that “after a day and a half of talks, even I want to leave the EU. I’m getting nowhere, I might have to walk away.”
Given that the EU’s unrelenting stubbornness arguably led to the loss of one of its most important members, is it unrealistic to suppose that this could readily slip into a no-deal scenario?
Already throughout the negotiations there has been an uncompromising view that the UK cannot craft its own new trading relationship, and must instead pick from one of the existing models, be it Norway, Canada, Turkey, Ukraine or anywhere else. This seems slightly unfair given that the existence of so many models shows how the EU has been willing to experiment before, but it is this position that has caused the current “impasse” in negotiations.
Nevertheless, the main difference between today’s negotiations and those of 2016 is the existence of a real, impending threat that will rear its ugly head if talks do collapse. Cameron attempted to create one, saying there was a possibility he would campaign for Leave should he not achieve what he wanted. But this was accurately disregarded, and in the end his bluff was called.
In contrast, no-deal is undoubtedly very real and will have negative consequences for the EU, even if the UK has more to lose. It seems that whether a deal is reached or not depends on whether the EU judges the economic consequences of no-deal to outweigh the potential political effects of not being seen to punish a departing member state.
Ultimately, then, it is only this looming threat that has the potential to concentrate minds in Brussels. The EU has strengthened as an institution since Thatcher’s day, and certainly has found itself with the whip hand in negotiations up to this point.
Characterising the current stand-off between the UK and the EU as a test of who will blink first is inaccurate. The UK has already blinked, several times. The outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be determined by whether the EU blinks at all.