Dear Boris and Jeremy
For much of the past three years of Brexit drama the media spotlight has been on the UK, the divisions, the squabbles, the resignations, the multi failures to deliver on the promise to leave the EU. The EU has sat back and enjoyed the show, confident that finally we would have to accept the appalling Withdrawal Agreement or collapse to a second referendum or a general election.
It’s unwise to generalised about the UK mainstream media, but if you watch as much TV news as I do then you will see the narrative firmly established that the UK faces a pretty much insoluble problem, reflecting the failures of our government and parliament. And you won’t have to look far to find this tale running strongly in many other parts of our media world.
Of course, there’s much truth in this analysis, though it’s certainly not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And that partial truth has been unlined by the raucous and acrimonious debates that have provided a continuous multi-coloured spectacle, a Cirque du Brexit, for the British media. They have had nothing like that much fun from Brussels. Brexit has become a wholly British problem.
Our next prime minister needs a Brexit PR policy to change this narrative. If the May government had such a thing, it’s difficult to discern what it was. I found it odd that TV pictures regularly appeared of our prime minister trotting to Brussels to plead with the EU bureaucrats to give her a break, only to be rebuffed. It was humiliating and, frankly, a bit desperate.
Whichever one of you becomes prime minister now has the opportunity to focus on a different narrative. By that I don’t mean a spin doctor’s strategy to persuade people that all is well while plaster is falling from the ceiling, to borrow a metaphor. I mean to build a narrative that reflects the reality that the future of Brexit lies as much in the EU’s hands as ours.
I suggest the winner of this leadership contest should, from the very beginning, refuse to get trapped in the endless loop of questions on the lines of what you would do next if this happens, but instead talk about the EU. What will they do? Are they really prepared to risk the cost to the Eurozone of a ‘no deal’? What ideas do they have for solving the Irish border backstop question?
Dismiss the childish response that the UK caused this Brexit problem so we must solve it. This is playground stuff on the level of ‘He started it’. The EU Commission has a responsibility to the people of Europe to help find a way to a fair and pragmatic Brexit that doesn’t damage their economy and cost jobs.
We must turn the spotlight on the EU. We can start by forcefully pointing out that not only does it take two to tango, it takes two to arrive at a ‘no deal’. It is wholly unreasonable for the EU to refuse to change the Withdrawal Agreement and to dismiss calls for further meaningful negotiations. The May government tried three times to get the WA through the House of Common and each time lost by a thumping majority. Surely the EU cannot object to the British Parliament taking the final, democratic decision?
Also, we will have a new Prime Minister and a new negotiating team. A new beginning for negotiations is more than justified.
We need a tougher tone. We should welcome headlines such as UK Government accuses EU of intransigence. The EU Commission’s negotiators are not our friends and we won’t achieve anything by pulling our punches. Rubbing cheeks with Jean Claude Juncker or his successor won’t unlock any doors and speaking plainly won’t close them.
I fear that you might make the mistake of taking seriously some campaign rhetoric about being able to negotiate successfully with the EU. You should avoid the May error of believing that goodwill, personal contacts with EU leaders and your negotiating skills can achieve concessions. Your role is clearly to set out an agenda and goal for negotiations and then appoint the best team to negotiate.
I hope that shortly after one of you has become our prime minister you will be able to produce a document, approved by your new cabinet, setting out a framework for negotiations for a fair and comprehensive free trade deal. Such a document should be sent to the EU Commission and the 27 member states and made available to the general public. Brexiteer Tory MPs should sail to every corner of the media globe to explain its merits and why the EU should welcome it.
Let’s put the ball in the EU’s court for a change. The Commission spent most of the long May negotiations complaining they did not know what sort of Brexit the UK wanted and not without reason. So tell them and say that we’re ready to negotiate on that basis just as soon as they are.
Would this work? It’s impossible to say, though commentators are usually pessimistic about the EU agreeing to any new negotiations. But at least under this scenario the EU would have to justify its stance and they might struggle with that if the response was a continuing blank ‘No’.
Up to this time many commentators seemed to regard what a Brexiteer might see as EU inflexibility and intransigence as immutable facts which the UK will struggle to deal with. Katya Adler, the BBC Europe Editor, signed off a report from Brussels by saying the EU insisted they would not change their position because they believed no deal would harm us more than them. She failed to add the reservation that choosing mutual assured damage as an option rather than further negotiations would strike many people as perhaps not the most rational response.
Another BBC TV correspondent pointed out that Boris Johnson’s proposal to use a GATT 24 provision after an October Brexit for a continuation of zero tariff trade while a free trade agreement was negotiated, would need the agreement of the EU, an agreement Brussels has said it would not give. The implication was that this plan was therefore unworkable.
But as so often in such matters, the simple question needs to be asked as to why the EU would not agree to such a proposal when it would clearly be as much in its interests as in ours. We will only know the answer to that question if the EU thinks that it really does face a no deal Brexit. But so long as it’s confident that the UK parliament will, somehow, prevent no deal happening, the EU will stick to its thick red line.
Some commentators predict that parliament will find a way to block a ‘no deal’ and we may end up with a general election before one of you and your wife or girlfriend, whichever is applicable, have decided on the colour of the new curtains for number ten.
If this should happen, then I suggest your narrative remains the same. Where we have ended up is not all the fault of ‘hardline Brexiteers’ who ‘were unwilling to compromise’ and were ‘prepared to crash out’, to use the language that has infiltrated so much of the reporting. Our failures have been matched by their obduracy and inflexibility.
Now is a good time to start pointing that out.