Muddled mindsets

There is a good piece by Philip Stephens in today’s FT (£/€) arguing that differences in the way the UK sees the EU, compared to the way the other EU 27 see it, means that a “disorderly brexit” is more likely. This very much corresponds with my 25 years of experience in government on both sides of the Channel. But I think it goes beyond a mere difference in mindsets. Yes, I have long observed, and noted, that the UK approaches its foreign relations with a transactional attitude, on a case-by-case basis, always asking “what’s in it for us?” in very narrow terms. By this I mean that the calculation is quite deliberately and often explicitly made in terms of immediate trade-offs – winning a defence contract, or some other political victory that can be triumphed in the House of Commons and the tabloids. The calculation does not tend to give sufficient weight to the country’s longer term, strategic interest – for example the investment in goodwill which is hard to quantify but which is nonetheless very real. This is the mindset which led to a succession of EU ‘wins’ from Fontainebleu to Maastricht, Lisbon, and finally Cameron’s “reform” package. But all these wins had costs in terms of goodwill and influence, costs which were visible to many of us but downplayed or even actively denied by those who claimed the victory for themselves. And this speaks to a second aspect of this mindset: the UK’s confrontational, zero-sum approach to foreign relations in which there must always be winners and losers. Perhaps this is an echo of Britain’s winner-takes-all politics. Certainly, it’s something of a cliché that the Parliament in Westminster seats government and opposition literally against each other at sword’s length, while continental legislatures generally sit in a hemicycle configuration, facilitating a kaleidoscope of coalitions.

Well, after 40 years of trying, it seems that the square peg would not go into the round hole. The UK will step away from the EU and plough its own furrow. Viva la différence. But first we have to get past the Article 50 negotiations; and then we have to carve out a new UK-EU relationship. Years of difficult and very important negotiations lie ahead. As I said in my previous post, to negotiate successfully requires empathy and intelligence. Understanding the way your negotiating partner thinks is crucial to a successful outcome. And here we move beyond a mere difference in mindsets.

Philip Stephens

My observation over many years has been that not only does the UK (by which I mean Westminster and Whitehall) have a short-term, transactional approach to the EU, it thinks everyone else does, or should. It seems incapable of understanding that its partners’ different mindset might be a conscious political choice made in good faith and for sensible reasons. We see it in Whitehall’s reflexive focus on lobbying Paris and Berlin rather than Brussels and Strasbourg. We see it in the fixation on German cars and Italian prosecco. It is reflected in the “have your cake and eat it” attitude whereby Leave politicians in the UK seem unable to accept that EU politicians mean it when they say there will be no cherry-picking, that the UK cannot have a bespoke arrangement which allows it to benefit from the rights of EU membership without shouldering the responsibilities. The intelligence is there: the UK’s highly regarded diplomats are experts in communicating differences back to London in beautifully written telegrams. And yet this intelligence falls on resolutely deaf ears. The Leave ayatollahs don’t want to hear it. They shoot the messenger who dares to challenge their world view.

Philip Stephens

This is Westminster exceptionalism taken to a logical extreme. At the time of the Scottish referendum, I wrote about it and expressed a hope that devolution would in time introduce people to the reality and obvious benefits of federal, tiered government, undermining the Westminster exceptionalism that poisons the UK’s politics and public life. Perhaps it will, one day, but it will come too late for this generation and the next who will live in a Britain outside the EU, and much, much poorer for it.

1 thought on “Muddled mindsets

  1. Nick Crosby

    The source of the UK’s exceptionalism

    Great piece and stimulating as always.
    FWIW my take is that the UK is unique in three ways that make it v hard for it to ‘see’ the EU.

    First, an unbalanced , FPTP system, where as you say there is no tradition of sharing power. It also, contra sceptics, has an unchecked, extremely powerful executive in Parliament (Hailsham’s elected dictatorship) whose frightening implications on Brexit we are only now beginning to enjoy.

    Second, a unitary state (a sub set of the above but with subtler implications) that does not share power or handle federalist concepts with any ease.

    Third, no recent history of defeat/ collapse of democracy.
    Every other State in the EU has some mix of the opposite above in its DNA: fair voting systems; federal structures; traditions of sharing power; the memory of dictatorships, defeat, humiliations. Brits don’t (although one could argue its defeats are slower and more indirect e.g. end of empire, Suez debacle, IMF 1976 etc.)

    The irony is now that the Brits are imposing on themselves a defeat to rival any of those visited upon the other EU states. It may therefore be that the disastrous Brexit ‘experiment’ will only drive the Brits back to Europe- after a chastening time outside. Maybe.

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