The British, says the distinguished early modern historian Paul Langford, are “a polite and commercial people.” So if you come to dinner and rudely suggest you plan to bugger up Britain’s commercial interests, it should not come as a huge surprise when you receive a sharp rebuff, as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, recently discovered. At the end of April he went to dinner at 10 Downing Street in London to discuss Brexit with the British prime minister, Theresa May. A few days later someone close to the president, and surely with his consent, leaked a highly unflattering and incendiary account of the dinner to a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, with the added spin that May was living in another galaxy and totally deluding herself about the prospects for a happy divorce from the EU. Brexit could not be a success, he told her.
Britain is in the middle of an election campaign, so Junker’s preening and clumsy diplomacy was a gift to Theresa May. On May 3, standing in front of the famous black door of No. 10, she delivered a corruscating response, rebuking the EU for “threats against Britain” that, she said, “were deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.” At local elections the next day her Conservative party crushed rivals throughout the country, humiliating the Labour Party and wiping out the right-wing anti-European party UKIP.
Expect something similar in the general election on June 8. With a helping hand from Juncker and the EU Commission, Theresa May is now clearly established as the firm voice and iron hand of Brexit. No wonder that German chancellor Angela Merkel is said to be furious with Juncker for his gross ineptitude.
Still, conventional wisdom says that the insults and accusations flying around at the moment are only to be expected. Aside from May wrapping herself in the Union Jack and speechifying with anti-EU rhetoric—catnip for a huge swathe of British voters across the political spectrum—both sides of the Brexit negotiations are engaging in chest-thumping and spleen-venting before the real talks get going. Take the divorce bill for example. EU: We want €60 billion. UK: We don’t owe you a penny. EU: Ok, make that €100 billion… and so on and so on. Behind the scenes, however, the two lead negotiators, David Davis for the UK and Michel Barnier for the EU—wily, experienced politicians both—are already said to be establishing cordial relations in preparation for tough but essentially professional and pragmatic negotiations.
Pragmatism has always been a British speciality on the world stage. It is a quality that may yet turn difficult Brexit negotiations into a success. Read one of Britain’s most perceptive commentators, Danny Finkelstein, for example, on how the key to UK success will be in making the EU think it won the debate.
But there are two reasons why the negotiations are still more likely than not to end in acrimony and disappointment. First, article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the mechanism for leaving the EU (drafted ironically by a British diplomat, Lord Kerr), is so heavily weighted in favor of the EU itself that it will be difficult for Europe to resist the temptation to overplay its hand, increasing the chances that Britain choose to walk away without a deal.
Second and as important, an approach of common sense and “let’s all be reasonable grown ups about this” fails to take into account the variable that no-one can control or even accurately predict: raw emotion. EU politicians and officials (but not European populations) at root really believe in the EU project, are genuinely affronted by Britain’s exit, and will go to extraordinary lengths to protect the broader European enterprise. This commitment is more about heart than head. Many European officials want to meet out a punishment beating. So while, for example, Barnier and his team may strike a bargain, they cannot control what happens when that deal gets to the European Parliament, which has a veto under article 50. In Britain, too, anti-EU sentiment is visceral, as the Brexit vote itself demonstrates. There will be no appetite there for a new Diet of Worms.
Luckily for Britain, readying itself to play poker with Brussels and preparing for a future if that game turns out to be a bust should be the same thing. Clearly Britain has a number of trump cards in the negotiations. Financially, the EU will take a huge hit from Brexit. As Bloomberg News points out, not only is Britain the second largest net contributor to the EU budget, the EU is losing its second largest economy as well as the prestige and reach of the City of London, which accounts for 37 percent of all global foreign-exchange trading, 39 percent of the world’s trading in over-the-counter derivatives, and is the biggest center for international bank lending. Add in that Britain’s defense spending is the EU’s highest, that it (along with France) possesses a nuclear weapons capability essential to Western security, has three of the world’s leading intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ), and has diplomatic influence through its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, leadership role in Nato, and the “special relationship” with the United States, few if any would dispute that the EU will be poorer, less influential and perhaps even less safe after Brexit. A generous settlement by the UK will alleviate and address many of those concerns, but Britain will need something substantial in return. The EU has to decide whether an advantageous trade deal is worth the compromise.
If the answer to that question is no, then beside these other losses the EU will have other challenges to face. The British, as Langford suggests, have always been an essentially commercial people. Daniel Defoe in the eighteenth century pointed out that “no place in the world has so much business done, with so much ease.” If Britain can no longer be a partner with the EU, it will surely become a fierce competitor: a pro-business, trade-oriented market economy with low tariffs and business tax rates. That set up will be a problem for the sclerotic, lumbering EU economic, social and political system. It may not be what many of those Britons who voted “leave” in 2016 wanted or expected from Brexit, but the consequence for Britain of its EU divorce will likely be more not less globalization.