Incompatible Fictions

I have just started listening to Sapiens, the book by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m finding it engrossing and thought-provoking in the best traditions of popular science writing. Harari argues that the key factor in giving our species, homo sapiens, an advantage over the other human species was the ‘cognitive revolution’, the evolutionary leap that allowed us to conceptualise fiction. This in turn allowed homo sapiens to build more complex societies bound together by shared fictions: mythology, religion, values, laws. Without rehashing his whole argument, in essence we are able to share a bond with other people in our social group, despite not having an intimate relationship with them, because we share in collective fictions: the nation state, our legal system, human rights, Christendom, etc.

This in turn got me to thinking about – of course – Brexit. Here is a short exchange I just had on Twitter with Gawain Towler. (Gawain is Director of Communications for the Brexit Party, and before that for UKIP, and he is one of my few Twitter follows outside my political bubble, because – although I disagree with him on pretty much everything – I do find him an engaging person who debates respectfully.)

Identity has been at the heart of Brexit. Anti-Europeans who could not bear the notion of sharing sovereignty at the European level fought a campaign of attrition over four decades to engineer and then win the 2016 referendum. They could not live with the fact that their society – the political entity with which they identified – had a European element to it. They found that they best way to articulate this discomfort was by claiming that the EU was undemocratic, or anti-democratic. The more the EU sought to address these claims, for example by setting up a European Parliament, giving it real powers, drafting a European Constitution, and so on, the more they resented it. This is because the perceived lack of European democracy was not the real issue. The real issue was that they could not tolerate the very concept of European democracy, or in other words, a European identity. (I wrote about this in my post ‘that demos thing‘.)

And so here we are. But, while these anglo-identitarians have won their battle, the problem hasn’t gone away. Now, instead of a group of anti-Europeans who could not live with what they saw as an unacceptable dilution of their identity, we have a group of pro-Europeans who cannot live with what we see as an unacceptable amputation of our identity. Because the enormous and highly energised Remain movement was not mobilised by the dry utilitarian arguments of David Cameron’s Remain campaign; it came about as an emotional response to Leavers’ assault on our European identities, as should be evident from the way in which the movement chose to identify itself.

So what happens to a society where a significant section of that society no longer shares the fiction that binds that society together? There will always be outliers, people on the fringes who dispute or reject these fictions (freemen-on-the-land types). But when half the country no longer believes in the divine right of kings, or in the union of southern Slavs, etc, well then you have a problem. The thing is, those anti-Europeans who fought that long campaign to leave the EU, they were on the fringe. Having a European tier of government simply wasn’t an issue for the vast majority of people in Britain, until fringe Leavers made it an issue. But Remainers are not on the fringe. 48% of voters in the 2016 referendum do not represent a marginal fringe that can be safely ignored.

Having won, Leavers now preach unity and reconciliation, but they won’t acknowledge Remainers’ grievance because they can’t acknowledge it – they cannot acknowledge our right to our European identities because it is incompatible with the fiction that they see as the indispensible secret sauce binding their society – an exceptionalist UK – together. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” When half the nation is denied its identity, when the fiction that binds at least half of us is simply edited out of existence, then our society is divided against itself.

Why should the burden be on the Leavers to revise their fiction of an exceptional and sovereign United Kingdom in order to accommodate us Remainers (or whichever label we give ourselves after 1 February)? Surely, as the losing party, we Remainers should revisit the fiction that gives us our identities? Except that’s not how this works. Our fiction, as Europeans, is the complex and multi-tiered one where we enjoy multiple identities and celebrate diversity. Our fiction accommodated theirs; there was nothing stopping them enjoying their British identity within the EU except their refusal to let us enjoy ours. Theirs is the narrow and exclusive one that tolerates no divergence. Our multicolour world includes black and white; their monochrome one is limited to black and white.

LSE Brexit Blog: So Long & Thanks For All The Red Tape

I’ve contributed another piece to the LSE Brexit Blog, this time expanding upon my tweet below which went a bit viral after I spluttered indignantly at David Davis and his disdain for impact assessments.

It’s identity theft

Here is the gist of a semi-impromptu intervention I made in the sleet at the #FinalSayForAll rally  in Brussels on 11 December.

I was radicalised by Thatcher’s Bruges speech. I’m a lifelong advocate of European integration and at times it has felt like a very lonely furrow to plough. I’ve been arguing with anti-EU types for years. In the end, every argument I’ve ever had with an anti-European can be reduced to an argument about identity.

They’ll dress it up in lots of ways – sovereignty, democracy, red tape – in the end, they’ll say: “the EU doesn’t have a demos”. The EU can’t be democratic, however hard it tries, because there is no EU identity. Our identity is illegitimate, they say.

Theresa May says that if we call ourselves citizens of the world then we’re citizens of nowhere. She says that the EU never felt part of our national story. She is wrong!

They lack the imagination and empathy to see that identity is rich and multifaceted. Because they can’t accept a multilayered identity themselves, they want to take away ours! I’m British, I’m German, I’m a Londoner, I’m a Brusselaar, I’m European. They don’t get to take away my identity and they don’t get to take away your identity.

If the referendum has done one thing it is to prove them wrong. Once, speaking out for Europe felt like a lonely undertaking. Not any more. Millions of British people are speaking up and acknowledging their European identities. Where is the European demos? It’s right here!

They rejected the emphatic win for pro-Europeans in the 1975 referendum and they fought for forty years to overturn it with a second referendum. They think we’re going to roll over and let them walk away with this? We’re never going to give up. And it’s not going to take us forty years. If I was radicalised in the 1980s by Thatcher’s Bruges speech, just imagine how our kids are being radicalised by this disgraceful mess. We are not going away, we will get our chance to reverse this, and we’re going to be ready to take it.

Remembrance Day and Brexit

This year, I made this little blue and yellow poppy and posted a photo of it on Twitter. I knew that this might prove controversial and also that some people might take offence. To them, I offer the following arguments:

Marking 11 November as Remembrance Day has a long international history. Many countries mark it. In Belgium, where I’ve lived for many years, it’s a public holiday. It does not ‘belong’ to the Royal British Legion nor to the UK, and I feel it has been appropriated in Britain by people who want to make it about the country’s current armed forces. That’s not what it is to me. To me, Remembrance Day is first and foremost about the awful horror, stupidity, and waste of the First World War. Then, by extension, it’s about the Second World War, and the way European civilisation turned in upon itself in fratricidal conflict. That’s what Remembrance Day is to me, and while I respect other people’s wish to make it about something else, something more than that, or something less than that, I reject their wish to impose their interpretation on me and everyone else. My understanding and experience of Remembrance Day is as valid as and arguably historically more valid than theirs.

Those who serve in the military are public servants who make great sacrifices for their fellow citizens. In the modern era, they are volunteers, so they have chosen this path knowing that it might entail great sacrifice. However you feel about the state’s use of arms to achieve its objectives, I think this choice by individuals is worthy of respect, and I do respect it. Respect that is forced isn’t really respect, though, is it? So-called “poppy fascism” (by which we mean pressure to conform in wearing a poppy) is, I think, fundamentally disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to people who serve in the armed forces because it poisons public debate around their service; it’s disrespectful to those who so pointlessly gave their lives in the First World War; it’s disrespectful to those who gave their lives in the Second World War to fight *actual* fascists, and defend our fundamental freedoms; and it’s disrespectful to all the other public servants who make sacrifices on a daily basis, even if those sacrifices are (thankfully) rarely mortal.

Given my personal views set out in the previous two paragraphs, it can hardly come as a surprise that my understanding of Remembrance Day is intimately bound up with my passionate belief in the European Union. To me, the EU flag is a far more potent symbol of Remembrance than a poppy. To me, Brexit is an offensive act of disrespect for the sacrifice of millions in past European wars. As soon as the idea occurred to me, I felt I had to make this EU poppy and show people that I had made it. This is the very opposite of trivialising Remembrance Day. Brexit trivialises Remembrance Day. And to the author of the Spectator piece who feels that talking about Brexit politicises Remembrance Day, I can only say that Remembrance Day is and always has been profoundly political, and his article only serves to prove that.

Post on the LSE’s Brexit blog: “Going it alone on trade is like bringing a chocolate spoon to a knife fight”

I’ve reworked one of my twitter threads on trade into a post for the LSE’s Brexit blog. I argue that the kind of Brexit being advocated both on the left and the right of British politics is unrealistic given the way international trade works in the modern world. The public are being missold Brexit by both camps. Read the whole thing on the LSE’s site, here.

Play up, play up, and play the game

Michel Barnier has warned the UK that Brexit is not a game. This was in response to Theresa May’s comment in Parliament that “the ball is in the EU’s court”.

Language matters. Tone is important. Ever since the EU referendum and throughout the negotiation process, it seems that everyone on the UK side has been using the language of conflict and confrontation, sport and gaming, winners and losers. This fundamentally colours the UK’s approach to the process, and in my view handicaps us. By seeing this negotiation as a contest, with winners and losers, the UK sets itself up to fail. I’ve already written about this in two posts: Brexit – a negotiator’s observations, and Brexit negotiations – how is the UK doing? To summarise, a confrontational, zero-sum approach rarely makes sense in a negotiation, and never when you are the weaker party, which the UK is.

Why is the UK adopting this unhelpful tone, when there is no need for it, when it is counter-productive, and when the other side would greatly prefer (indeed expected) to do this in a spirit of cooperation? Here, I want to move beyond the tactical aspect and briefly explore a more fundamental cultural question. Because this tone of confrontation is not new in UK-EU relations. I think it is symptomatic of a deeper culture clash between Whitehall and Brussels, Westminster and Strasbourg. It is a cliché that Westminster’s politics, with first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all, government and opposition benches set facing each other a sword’s length apart, is at odds with the continent’s politics, with rainbow hemicycles and Jamaica coalitions, proportional representation, and tiny centrist parties perpetually in government as junior partners. Certainly it is true that people raised in other political cultures find it hard to identify with the martial tone of British politicians and press. When aggressive, conflictual language has had real consequences within living memory, you take more care. In Whitehall, it is normal to think in terms of alliances and enemies: reflexive instructions to “follow the Germans”, antipathy to “Club Med”, not-so-secret away-days with “like-mindeds” from the Netherlands and Denmark; Paris and the Commission as the enemy. Others do this too, of course, but my sense is that no-one revels in it to quite the same extent as the British, nor takes it quite so seriously. Because this is serious, grown-up business. Building Europe is not a game. The nations of Europe once played the Great Game, the result was two world wars.

“Play up! and play the game!”

Hang on Chris, you say, did you not complain bitterly when Theresa May said that the EU never felt an integral part of the UK’s national story? Isn’t this what she meant? Isn’t it true that the UK and the EU are just a bad fit – clashing personalities? Well, dear hypothetical reader, you may have a point there. People like me hoped that membership of the EU would begin to wean the UK off its oppositional approach to politics. We had hoped that forty years spent marinading in the cooperative pickling vinegar of Brussels might transform British politics, take the edge off so to speak. It hasn’t. We knew this when we saw our first attempt at continental-style coalition government fail so dismally. It’s not that the coalition didn’t deliver consensus politics – arguably, it did – it’s that no-one wanted it or understood it. It was too alien for a country tuned to winner-takes-all. Nevertheless, I do not accept that this culture clash meant the experiment was doomed to fail. The EU is made up of 28 countries, all of which have different cultural and historical experiences, and each of those countries is made up of regions with diverse cultures and histories. None of this is a legitimate reason to abandon the experiment of European integration, in fact the opposite: given the conflicts which have arisen as a result of this diversity, integration was essential and remains essential. Integration is perfectly compatible with respect for diversity, and preservation of differences. The point is not to homogenise; the point is to understand, and respect.

Here is a scenario: the British vote, by a narrow margin, to leave the EU. The British parliament decides to respect the result of the referendum and mandates the British government to begin the process of withdrawing from the EU. The government sets up a broad, cross-party panel of senior legislators, judges, and individuals from business and civil society, to prepare a road map for Brexit. Studies are commissioned and published. Proposals are developed which achieve consensus. At every stage, those responsible in government and in the panel carefully consult and inform their EU counterparts, and jointly they determine a way for the UK to leave the EU, respecting the result of the referendum, while minimising the impact on the EU itself and on the UK. That would be how a grown-up country would go about this complicated and sensitive task. But that requires a habit of consensus building and respect for dissenting voices which does not exist in the UK of 2017. So instead we have a chaotic and divisive process framed in a narrative of conflict which is reminiscent of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers.

Knit for Victory

About 18 months ago I taught myself to knit. It’s something I’d been meaning to do for a long time, I had always seen it as a beautiful craft and a potentially very satisfying creative outlet. With a bit of encouragement and coaching from my sister, I took the first tentative steps, and I quickly fell in love with it as a hobby. It has lived up to all its promise and I’m still completely hooked. Speaking of hooks, this summer I diversified into crochet. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it’s the perfect pastime: creative, contemplative, manual, organic, solitary, but also social.

 

I’ve previously posted a knitting pattern on this blog. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to knit a pair of socks by a previous happy recipient who wears them in bed. He wants another pair but, he specified, he wants a pair decorated with the EU stars. I duly delivered the first of the pair and at the time of writing I am working on the second. I tweeted a picture of the first and it found its way into the Brexit camp’s echo chamber. They don’t like it. It offends them, and they began queueing up to tell me about it.



“knitting against democracy”


I cannot begin to tell you how gratifying I find this. I knit because I love to, and I knit the EU flag because it’s a way to make a statement, isn’t it? It won’t change the world or reverse Brexit, but it feels good. But oh my God it feels so much better when I know it annoys Leavers!

A number of people on Twitter have asked me for the pattern. This isn’t going to be a pattern as such, but the following should give you all you need to knit these yourself, it’s actually very easy.

It’s based on a standard sock pattern. I got mine from a really good book which I recommend, Knitting Socks by Ann Budd.

Buying a book may be overkill but what I like about this book is that it gives you a basic formula that you can follow for any size sock in any size yarn on any size needles, once you have the gauge. I have the Kindle version on my phone for quick consultation. I also recommend following Youtube tutorials the first time you attempt socks – a very good one I’ve used is the one below.

Once you have your basic sock pattern, then the rest is straightforward. Get your blue and yellow sock yarns (I use Regia 4-ply) , knit a sock as you would normally in a blue yarn but switch to yellow for the heels and the toes (for the toes I do two rows in alternating yellow and blue before switching to just yellow, and I start these at the beginning of the decreases). Then, for the star pattern, at about twelve rows beneath the ribbing I simply do the stranded colour work following the pattern below. Again, Youtube is full of helpful tutorials if you’re new to colourwork.

Sizing can be tricky so it’s important to get the gauge right. I’m using Regia 4-ply sock yarn with 3.5mm needles and 64 stitches in a round, so I have room for 8 stars following the pattern above. It’s relatively simple to adapt the pattern to a smaller sock size either by reducing the number of stars and increasing the space between them, or by adapting the star pattern. Doodling new knitting patterns is what meetings are for, right? There’s also an app for that.

My 64-stitch round on 3.5mm needles gives me a sock that is pretty loose even on my size 11 feet so you might want to go with something smaller. Be careful with the colourwork – if you strand too tightly, your sock will lose elasticity and will be hard to put on; strand too loosely and a toe might get caught in a floater (a ‘floating’ length of yarn in the colour not being used – mitigate this by twisting the two coloured yarns around each other every four or five stitches). Experience is the only way to get this right. Just experiment.

The traditional way to knit socks is on four double-pointed needles (or three if you’re American). I’ve switched to using the magic loop method which I really recommend, it’s a lot quicker and neater.

Obviously, this pattern can easily be adapted to hats or scarves or mittens or gloves or anything else. If creativity strikes, please share your results in the comments.

I’ve put a gallery of my knits up on Flickr, and I intend to keep adding to it. I’d be delighted to hear from other knitters especially the craftivist type.

Knitting

Some Twitter threads on trade

I’ve posted a couple of threads on Twitter recently about trade, challenging the Brexit narrative of some ‘liberal leavers’ in which they argue that the UK has been held back by its EU membership. Going back to find one’s old tweets is a nightmare, so rather than do that I’m simply going to link to them here for future reference. (Edit – I’m broadening this to include other Brexit-related threads, not just the trade ones.)

1. Busting the myth that the EU is protectionist:

2. Why ‘copy and paste’ won’t work:

3. How the Bombardier story shows us what’s in store post-Brexit:

4. Leaving the EU’s defensive umbrella exposes the UK to the EU as well as the US:

5. What happens to the EU’s 1,000 international agreements after Brexit?

6. UK foreign policy after Brexit – where can it go?

7. Why the EU’s international agreements take such a long time to finalise.

8. The EU is actually pretty democratic

I may will have come back and added to this list and will continue adding to it if/when I do more of these.

Brexit negotiations: how is the UK doing?

Last year, before Brexit negotiations got started, I wrote this short piece outlining my thoughts – as someone with many years of experience negotiating with and on behalf of the EU – on how the UK should approach these talks. It is no coincidence that my friend and former colleague Steve Bullock shared similar thoughts a couple of months back. We are now well into the negotiation phase. How has the UK side been doing? Time to take stock.

Those negotiating tips I gave can be boiled down to three golden rules:

 

Goodwill is your most valuable resource, hoard it and spend it sparingly.

As I said, you negotiate better with partners, not with opponents. International negotiations are rarely a zero-sum game, and usually the two sides will have broadly overlapping objectives or goals which are for the most part compatible, mutually achievable. For example, both the UK and the EU want a future trading relationship that is as frictionless as possible. If we accept that, outside the EU, there is going to be some friction compared to the status quo, nevertheless it is definitely possible to find a way to reduce it while respecting each other’s red lines. But to do that you need to be working together towards this common goal.

From the outset, the UK has burned through goodwill as if it were an inexhaustible, ever-renewable resource. It is not. Compiling a list of examples demonstrating how the UK has damaged goodwill since the referendum would take me all day and fill far too much space. Just off the top of my head: accusing the EU of meddling in the UK’s election; ad hominem attacks on Juncker and Barnier; treating EU citizens living in the UK with contempt; telling the EU it can “go whistle” for the money which the UK had already committed to spending; threatening to withhold cooperation on security and counter-terrorism… the list goes on and on. None of this was necessary, none of it did anything whatsoever to advance the UK’s negotiating objectives, all it has done is squander goodwill where we most desperately need it.

 

Know yourself.

The first advice given to anyone going into an auction is: know your limit. Self-awareness is generally a good idea when undertaking any project. Know what you want, know what you need, know what you are capable of getting, and have a sense of how you are going to achieve it.

“And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” The UK is hopelessly divided. And yet not only have British leaders done nothing to try to mend that schism, they have repeatedly and consistently denied that it even exists. The country is coming together behind Brexit, says Theresa May, again and again, against all the evidence. This comes across as panglossian self-delusion because it’s plain to everyone else, inside and outside the UK, that it’s not true. But not only is the kingdom divided against itself, so is the government. Minister briefs against minister, civil servant after civil servant quits, policy papers take an eternity to see the light of day, and when they do they are contradictory, implausible, short on detail, or just plain vacuous. Positions are taken, then reversed, then reasserted. Stakeholders cannot trust anything they are told because they are told very little and what little they are told is demonstrably false or contradicted by previous and subsequent statements.

 

Know your negotiating partner.

This isn’t rocket science. Good intelligence is always essential. Know your opposite number’s strengths and weaknesses, know their red lines, know their personalities. Luckily for the UK, it is negotiating with an organisation it knows intimately from the inside and which shares its DNA. So how is it that the UK shows again and again that it doesn’t really understand the EU and even that it doesn’t have much interest in understanding the EU? Oh, I know that key people on the UK side know the EU very well – civil servants have spent years working with and often in the EU institutions and they are not stupid. But these are the same civil servants that keep quitting, or being shunted aside. “The UK has had enough of experts” we are told. The German car industry will ride to the rescue, we are told. We will have our cake and eat it, we are told. We can be in the Single Market and yet not in the Single Market, we are told. The Prime Minister scorns an invitation to speak to the European Parliament but goes instead to Florence to give a speech. She gets to work on Merkel and Macron rather than Tusk and Juncker. Sat here in Brussels watching events unfold, the UK government’s actions scream ignorance of basic EU realities. They scream wishful thinking. The UK government seems to be dealing with a fantasy EU that resembles the caricature presented in British tabloids, not the real EU of which it has been a core member for over four decades.

 

This morning as I write this, Twitter is once again abuzz with something Boris Johnson has said. He thinks Brexit talks will fail and that Theresa May “will be humiliated”. “Nobody ever beats the EU in a negotiation” he apparently ‘told a friend’. If he really thinks this, it’s odd that he worked so hard to put his country into a negotiation with the EU, and then to frame this negotiation in needlessly confrontational, zero sum terms, so that the UK can only win if the EU loses.

Boris is right, insofar as he says that the EU rarely emerges from a negotiation as a loser. But he is utterly wrong if he thinks this means that the EU’s negotiating partners must necessarily then be the losers. As I said back in October last year, the EU’s default approach to negotiations is to find a way for both sides to win. This is the best guarantee of success. By spurning this approach from the outset, the UK has engineered its own probable defeat.

It is this, I think, that has most shocked and alienated the EU side. Cooperative, collegiate, consensus building is so baked into the way we work that it has become a reflex. After all, it’s why the EU was created in the first place. In our daily lives, we look for solutions that work for multiple and diverse interested parties. If we did not do this, we would not be here. The UK has been part of this for forty years and has generally been a very good player of the game. In Parliament Committees, in Council Working Groups, in Commission inter-service meetings,  Brits have earned a reputation for finding creative solutions, skilfully drafting inclusive language, and putting the emphasis on pragmatism and results. The referendum result was a massive shock, yes, but surely the British would deal with it in a pragmatic and sensible way? There was a widespread assumption that the UK would implement the referendum result in its typically sober, intelligent way to minimise shock to itself and the rest of the EU and build a solid foundation for a mutually advantageous future relationship. The opposite has happened. This is simply shocking and will have a lasting impact on the country’s influence and reputation.