So here we are. In little more than one month, Britain is due to crash out of the EU without an agreement as the single outcome a strong majority MPs abhor because of the damage it would do to jobs, tax receipts and relations to European and international partners. The agreement actually negotiated by the government was strongly rejected by two thirds. Instead, a fragile majority of MPs demand ill-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish backstop, or want it gone completely. Labour insists on a permanent customs union that is a matter for the future relationship and is perfectly compatible with the withdrawal agreement, while the party’s ‘six tests’ can realistically only be met by staying in the single market with all the obligations this brings or remaining.
Those who know how the EU works such as the former UK permanent representative in Brussels, Ivan Rogers, are tearing their hair out over the level of ignorance and his sense of frustration is widely shared among the community of people who study the EU professionally. I don’t wish to rehash the critique of the government approach to the negotiations, but want to explore why so many MPs, both Tories and Labour, misjudged the degree of the EU’s unity, what the core interests of EU member states are, the asymmetry of power in the negotiation, and how to best influence it. If we consider insights from research into foreign policy and intelligence failures, four main reasons stand out:
Firstly, the EU-related knowledge basis and professional connections have been eroding over years, because of declining priority and associated career incentives of being successful in Brussels. During the Blair years the government was keen to and proud of setting the policy agenda in the EU in economic strategy, counter-terrorism and security and defence policy. This started to change already under Gordon Brown who showed little interest in or appreciation of Brussels politics.
Labour’s loss of knowledge continued the longer it stayed out of power, but also because those MPs with experience of governing under Blair were being side-lined by the new front-bench under Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn himself, a lifelong Eurosceptic as well as his key advisors and some on the front bench, tend to see the EU as an unreformable neoliberal project and, erroneously, think that delivering the 2017 Labour manifesto requires freedom from EU state-aid rules. From this perspective, there is no need for coalition building with the socialist parties in Europe who called to stay and reform.
The Conservatives’ understanding of the EU suffered from Cameron’s early decision to withdraw his party from the conservative grouping in the European parliament in exchange for Brexiteer support for his leadership. This cut off the Conservatives from the European mainstream, damaged relations to sister parties such as the German CDU, and disrupted information flow and influence. As a result, British MPs overestimated both Germany’s capacity as well as its willingness to help accommodate British demands, which were increasingly about stopping things rather than setting the agenda for new policies. The 2011 watershed failure of the government to block the Fiscal Compact designed to save the Eurozone was the first sign of misreading EU partners, closely followed in 2015 by futile efforts to block Jean-Claude Juncker becoming Commission President after his party grouping won the European Parliament elections.
The second explanation for the misjudgement is confirmation bias. This is a problem affecting not just MPs but many commentators and members of the public with the most passionately held political beliefs. Confirmation bias involves seeking and accepting information, because it supports actions that are in line with ones’ beliefs and disregard evidence that contradicts them, regardless of reliability, relevance or track-record of the source. One can always find some “expert opinion” from an ideologically compatible “think-tank” that supports ones’ view and avoid or discard those that jar or contradict it.
One of the benefits of confirmation bias for true believers is that you can never be disproven by real world events. If the EU did not blink and yield as David Davis and other Brexiteers argue it must have been because it was intransigent, arrogant and out to “punish” Britain – not because the UK harboured unrealistic ideas. If the deal was somehow approved at the last second and negotiations about a post-Brexit trade-deal turned out not to be “the easiest in history” it was because the Commons had lost its nerve to fight for a better deal. If the EU did not respond positively to a new approach from a potential Corbyn-led government it was because the Tories had destroyed trust through the negotiating tactics, rather than Labour engaging in wishful thinking.
The third problem is mirror-imaging whereby uncertainty about the intentions of the other side is filled by imagining what is rational from ones’ own point of view. From the perspective of many British MPs the EU insisting on the backstop even if it risks a no deal is an irrational strategy given the economic damage a no-deal would incur. Many also do not understand why Britain could not enjoy the same kind of access to the Single Market as before as it creates new barriers to European businesses. This reflects a strong tendency in British political discourse to see evaluate policies and the EU in particular from a narrow “bottom-line”, cost-benefits perspective.
In contrast, EU institutions and the overwhelming majority of its members see Brexit not just on its own terms, but as precedence creating and future credibility-defining. Cutting an economically favourable deal with a country wanting to be politically more distant would come at an unacceptable price of weakening the Union at a time when populist parties in government attempt hard-ball tactics. The integrity of the Single Market is at stake if Northern Ireland was outside the customs union without border controls or by allowing Britain to undercut standards to gain competitive advantage whilst enjoyed good access to the Single Market. The EU is determined to defend the Treaties as its quasi constitution, which is something difficult to understand in a country without a written constitution. The difficulty of arriving at a legally-binding text among 27 member states also helps to explain why such texts, once agreed, become very difficult to change and why the EU says it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement shaped around and agreed by the British government and the EU 27 at the end of last year.
Beyond the immediate issue of the Brexit negotiations, many British MPs struggle to understand the compromise-nature of EU politics. They see Brussels through the lens of their own confrontational system with strongly whipped parties and underpinned by first past the post elections. Many continental European countries are run by coalition governments and problem-solving-focused parliaments, making it easier for them understand the give and take in Brussels. The EU is a compromise-making machine geared towards building the broadest possible support even when majority votes are allowed. This works only because members agree on informal rules on how to act and share a minimum level of trust not abuse their rights. Casting vetoes, going into battle with publicly announced red-lines and reneging on agreements made has lost the UK trust and good-will even among the most Anglophile countries. The lack of trust has now become a major obstacle for negotiation success.
Finally, assumption drag helps to explain why many MPs still do not realise that their perceived understanding of how Brussels works does no longer apply. Not just MPs, but also many journalists remember long EU summit negotiations and the late-night compromises that typically enable a deal to made. Indeed, in the now distant past, Britain won some special concessions at these negotiations over new Treaty texts. However, this is not a normal EU summit over a new treaty or a major agreement where everyone needs to have prizes to sell at home. By voicing its intention to leave Britain has placed itself in a fundamentally different position of a prospective “third country” against which the remaining EU members defend their interests. While the EU is keen to get Brexit over with and passed and will show flexibility, particularly on the political declaration, it is not going to let either Ireland or its mandated negotiator, the European Commission, stand in the rain on such a high-stakes issue. Smaller member states in particular will watch this closely as a test-case.
The need to address these misunderstandings rises whatever the outcome of Brexit. It will be central to making a success of the coming negotiations about future relations if May’s deal passed. Remain will require a change of attitude. And even if Britain crashed out, it will still remain strongly connected to and impacted by the European Union by virtue of geography, economic links, law, security cooperation and, indeed people. As long as the EU exists and confounds Brexiteers predictions of its imminent demise, Britain without a seat at the table and voting rights will have an even greater need to understand how the EU works in order to influence it from the outside.
*Christoph Meyer is Professor of European and International Politics at King’s College London. An abbreviated version of this text was published under the title ‘Brexit turmoil: five ways British MPs misunderstand the European Union’, in The Conservation and Uk in a Changing Europe, on 7 February 2019.