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Westminster in Disarray—and Why it Should Worry Us All

British and European negotiators have been at it for months. So why is there still so little progress? Dahrendorf Research Associate Marcel Hadeed encourages both sides to clean up their acts—for all of our sakes.

The progress that isn’t

As Brexit negotiations stall, EU negotiators grow increasingly frustrated with the UK’s lack of workable solutions regarding the three pillars of the divorce agreement: financial obligations, Northern Ireland borders, and citizens’ rights. This frustration results from a lengthy process of disappointing deliveries from the Conservative government. To be clear, both sides have shown little appetite for compromise, but the onus is clearly on the departing party to make Brexit work.

Even before the talks started, a clear difference in negotiating cultures became evident. The British confidence in a favourable deal—one might think of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s “having our cake and eating it” approach—was confronted with German pragmatism. One can argue that the British focus on outcome was met with EU insistence on procedural correctness. Any British attempt to engage in pre-negotiation deliberations with Germany were shrugged off by Mrs Merkel’s “no means no” (“nein heißt nein”).

But this was only the harbinger of the difficulties to come. As time—the shortest resource in these negotiations—inevitably and rapidly passes, progress remains elusive. Theresa May’s Florence speech, though viewed as more conciliatory than her Lancaster House speech, still faced criticisms of being too generic, too wishful, and too unrealistic. These developments significantly dimmed hopes for quick progress on the divorce. On none of the three issues has  “sufficient progress” been made towards advancing negotiations to the next stage. Negotiators missed the deadline for reaching the second phase of negotiations by October, and there are no guarantees that the December round will unlock phase two.

The political value of non-commitment

It would be a mistake to attribute these disappointing developments to insufficient capabilities—the Brits have a famously sophisticated diplomatic machinery. Rather, it is the domestic politics of a deeply divided political landscape that prevents the government from agreeing to the EU’s demands.

Every agreement has a political price tag to be paid at home. The financial divorce settlement might be the most contentious and politically toxic of the three main pillars of Brexit. While the EU is insisting that it is not seeking any “concessions”, just the honoring of financial obligations, hard Brexiters, like up-and-coming Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees Mogg, insist that legally, no money is owed [paywall]. This gives rise to a discourse that increasingly makes it difficult for Theresa May to agree to any substantial sum, as any money paid is spun to be a “generous offer”. Advocates of a hard Brexit have considerable formative power over the public discourse. Accordingly, giving in too quickly or giving up too much risks the appearance of weakness. Informed by such a discourse, financial settlement is tantamount to giving up the ace card. Conversely, keeping commitments vague holds real political value.

Westminster in disarray

Not all is strategic. Impediments to progress also stem from a myriad of political missteps, scandals and crises that recently rocked the Conservative party, undercutting the prime minister’s authority among her ministerial peers and diminishing the political clout she needs for decisive action in the Brexit negotiations.

The level-headed Theresa May was once was heralded as the perfect choice to lead Britain out of the Union. A timid “remainer”, she seemed able to give the 52% of Britons voting for Brexit an unequivocal path towards exiting the EU (“Brexit means Brexit”), while appeasing the 48% of remainers with the hope for a close reciprocal relationship after the divorce. But the early elections in June changed everything. The Tories lost the majority and May polled historically low, prompting many observers to start the countdown on her premiership. Her highly anticipated speech at the Manchester party convention in October did little to alleviate the feeling that her grip on the party was loosening.

To be sure, she was not the only one giving a hapless impression in the public eye. The resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon over allegations of sexual misconduct on 1 November was followed only seven days later by the resignation of International Development Secretary Priti Partel over secret meetings with Israeli officials, without informing Theresa May or Boris Johnson. The latter—himself in the spotlight over repeated diplomatic gaffes in relation to Myanmar, Libya, and Iran—is unswervingly positioning himself as possible next prime minister on the premise of a hard Brexit.

These negative headlines are a distraction from the common goal at hand: a successful and reciprocal future relationship. They reflect badly on Theresa May’s authority and capability to steer the British government. As Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP in the European Parliament, put it, “who should I call in London? Who speaks for the government? Theresa May, Boris Johnson or even David Davis?”

Get the house in order

For the negotiations to progress, the British government must clean up its act now and convey a clear message to Brussels. “Sufficient progress” is a flexible term, a matter of judgment. Because it is the European Union who decides when it is reached, the British government would be well advised to show good faith and unequivocally commit to its’ ambition to have the “freest and most frictionless” trade possible with the EU. This necessitates honesty at home about the tough choices the UK will need to make on core issues, such as immigration, powers of the European Court of Justice, and trade. Because one thing is certain: you cannot have your cake and eat it, too. And the British people deserve to know that.

In return, the EU must start moving. Good faith and trust—essential in any negotiation—are reciprocal concepts. It is all too easy to succumb to Schadenfreude, but the EU must move the agenda forward. Fewer than 500 days are left until Brexit, and preparations for a “no deal” scenario are already underway on both sides of the Channel. That prospect should alarm us all. Because one thing is certain: whether it’s security policy, foreign policy, or trade and investment, “no deal” is no good option for anyone. For the UK’s sake, and the EU’s, let us hope Westminster cleans up its act, so we all can “keep calm and carry on”.

Marcel Hadeed is a Dahrendorf Research Associate at the Hertie School of Governance.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.