Brexit end game

The DI team has always believed there will be a Brexit deal for the simple reason that it is so obviously in both sides’ interests. Rational people tend to behave…well…rationally. But it hasn’t always looked that way over the last four years.

Of course there was always going to be lots of very public jockeying for negotiating position. The UK media has breathlessly reported any EU negotiating spin as if it were an inalienable truth, carved on stone tablets and handed down personally by God from Mount Sinai, whereas any UK Government position has been mercilessly derided by our current crop of overwhelmingly Remain-supporting journalists.

And during the May era there was a palpable whiff of defeatism about the UK negotiating team. But once the Johnson regime got rid of the insufferably smug EU fifth columnist, Olly Robbins who never believed in Brexit in any way and was in any case negotiating without a clear mandate from the centre – and appointed David Frost to take charge of negotiations, things actually began to change. The UK negotiating team seemed to finally have some ‘lead in its pencil’.

As all our clients know only too well, negotiating is tough. Red lines must be…well…red. Brinkmanship is sometimes required. Running the clock down towards a (false, self-imposed?) deadline can be an important ploy. But sensible compromises to move negotiations to a reasonable conclusion are usually the only way to get agreement in the end. And we’ve seen all of the above.

But we are now at the business end of things. A deal is there to be done. What are the politics that have made this possible? Fundamentally, just two things:

First, is the shift in the thinking of the key negotiator on the EU side. We wrote on this blog in May 2017 that there were three types of EU politician:

  • Punishment beaters – These guys want to beat Britain up in a very painful and public way. They are the committed EU federalists, the true believers – the Jean Claude Junkers, the Guy Verhofstadts et al. They are mainly creatures of the EU institutions. Their views are driven by a combination of palpable hatred of the ‘le modèle anglo-saxon’ and arrogant outrage that any country could possibly ever want to leave their beloved EU. They want revenge. They want the UK to fail. They don’t really want a deal, or at least one on any vaguely reasonable terms.

  • Schadenfreude survivalists – These are the guys who, for sure take delight at the UK getting a comeuppance, but are actually driven by EU survival instinct. They need the UK’s exit to be extremely painful, and its subsequence performance to be much worse than before, because they need to educate voters in other EU countries that leaving the EU is economic suicide, lest this ‘leaving thing’ begins to catch on. They want a deal but one that weakens the UK so they can trade with it on a very preferential basis. Macron sits firmly in this camp.

  • Pragmatists – These we said were our only hope. Luckily Angela Merkel has always been in this group. These guys have a bit of the schadenfreude survivalist about them but actually realise that the EU needs the UK to do OK post-Brexit and they recognise that the negative impact of a hard Brexit could be catastrophic for some EU member states and their individual economies.

So what’s changed here is that as the negotiations have dragged on, Monsieur Barnier has moved very visibly from the punishment beater camp to the pragmatists. He has been working hard to get the EU27 aligned to do a deal; quite a difficult task. Because he sees that (a) it’s possible and (b) it’s needed by the EU, especially now with all the extra pain of Covid-19. But he’s also shifted his position because the new Commission President, Ursula von de Leyen, is a Merkel appointed pragmatist.

The second fundamental change is the positioning and approach by the Johnson/Frost camp. In the first phase of Brexit negotiations, May/Robbins were felt by the EU to be fairly supine, a team that could be pushed around, beaten up. Once Johnson won the leadership in July 2019, Frost arrived in Brussels and, particularly since Johnson won a thumping majority in December last year, the EU side has had to be more realistic.

But, but, but…what impact will the demise of arch Leavers Dom Cummings and Lee Cain have on the UK negotiating team’s resolve? Will Boris feel less willing to compromise at the last in case it confirms everyone’s fears about him being weak and needing Cummings to hold him firm? And what impact will this have on the EU side? Will it make them (over)confident to push harder now the two key Vote Leave stalwarts are not sitting either side of the PM? And then there’s internal EU member states’ politics or even head of state egotism (ie Macron).

There’s still some way to go, and it could go wrong, but as ever the DI team are pretty convinced that there will be a deal.