Brexit Blame Game Is Really a Clash of Cultures
Rather than downplaying the gravity of the U.K.’s most complex foreign policy maneuver since World War II, these small details highlight the clash of political cultures that’s pervaded 44 years of British membership in the European Union.
As leaders head to Brussels for a key EU summit, the first six months of two years of divorce negotiations have been as much about style as substance. The British blame the EU for being intransigent, obsessed by rules and lax over media leaks and security. The Europeans accuse the U.K. contingent for not negotiating honestly and paying lip-service to details.“The British have never understood what it is to be in the EU,” said Andrew Duff, a former U.K. member of the European Parliament and now a visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre, a think tank advising on European integration. “They know it’s a club, but they’ve treated it like one of those awful clubs in London where you pay the membership fee and then behave as you please. That’s always poisoned the British approach.”
One of the diplomats close to the talks said there is still a feeling the sides are on two different planets even after five rounds of monthly talks in Brussels and discussions between leaders.
It doesn’t mean that the U.K. and the EU will never get a deal to smooth Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc, but it does make things a lot more difficult. If they don’t understand the way each other works, the question is how can they see eye to eye on the myriad discussion points. They range from big issues like the U.K.’s bill for already existing commitments and the rights of citizens, down to the minutiae of food labeling.
The U.K. wanted a much more fluid approach to how the negotiations were set up: talks in London and Brussels when they were required, with different people as and when needed and with the option of discussions in other capitals too. The EU insisted on formal monthly rounds at the European Commission and a single lead negotiator.
The EU picked former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, 66, to lead its side. He is a typical European “protocolaire,” said Duff, a technocrat who does things by the book, exactly the type of operator that British politicians don’t get. Barnier can’t make any concessions or move away from his rigid mandate without it being signed off by the governments of 27 member states.
The U.K. government meanwhile has David Davis, 68, who has spent his political career rallying against exactly the type of inflexible — some U.K. officials say humorless — European bureaucrats that Barnier represents.
When the two men stand alongside each other in news conferences at the end of each negotiating round, Barnier is precise, stern and good on detail. Davis is more jocular and, according to some of his entourage, often would rather not be there.
“It’s cultural because the EU is a rules-based system and it has a rules-based way to sort things out, it has to be like that,” said Richard Corbett, who was member of former EU President Herman Van Rompuy’s cabinet and is now a European lawmaker for the Labour Party. “In part it’s cultural, in part it’s procedural, and in part it’s political. And the combination of those three things is lethal.”
The divergent style of politics was evident when Brexit talks started in June. The EU published all its negotiating positions upfront. At first, the U.K. refused to set out its positions on anything to avoid showing its hand. U.K. negotiators were photographed turning up to their first session with barely a piece of paper between them. The EU delegation had piles.