The EU will happily punish delusional Britain for Tuesday night’s Brexit defeat

It was fun while it lasted.

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It was fun while it lasted.
source
REUTERS/Hannah McKay

  • Tuesday night’s vote in Parliament defeating Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal might seem like a significant event – an emphatic rejection of what the European Union wants.
  • From Brussels’ point of view, however, nothing has changed.
  • Article 50 is a legal process, not a negotiation. This isn’t poker, and Britain has not suddenly been dealt a new set of aces. It’s more like a court proceeding, in which the EU is deciding how the UK shall be sentenced.
  • If Britain deludes itself into thinking the EU will start compromising, the country could flop out of Europe almost by accident, with no deal – that’s the worst-case scenario.

LONDON – The morning after the historic defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in Parliament on Tuesday night, Britain feels different. We may not know what our future with the European Union will look like, but one thing is certain: It won’t be May’s deal.

From Brussels’ point of view, however, nothing has changed. Read the statements from the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker; the European Council’s president, Donald Tusk; and the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, and chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. “Time is almost up,” Juncker said.

They haven’t budged an inch.

That is important because there is a huge risk that Britain will delude itself into thinking that Tuesday night’s vote “changes everything.”

This, as warned before, is the “Greek fallacy.”

When Greece went through its debt crisis, trying to avoid a punitive debt bailout from the EU, it held four national elections and one referendum. Each one gave the country a “mandate” to secure a better deal for Greece. The EU ignored each one, and forced the country through an economic crisis worse than the Great Depression to get its money back.

This was described in 2017 by Duncan Robinson, the Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times, as the Greek fallacy – the false belief that a domestic vote somehow gives a national government a stronger negotiating position than before.

It does not.

Article 50 is a legal process, not a negotiation. This isn’t a game of poker, and Britain has not suddenly been dealt a new set of aces. It’s more like a court proceeding, in which the EU is sitting in judgment of the UK and deciding its sentence. (Of course, the EU does not officially regard Brexit as a punishment. But it has an interest in deterring other countries from following Britain to independence.)

From that perspective, Tuesday night’s vote is just a footnote.

Brussels doesn’t care about votes or elections inside individual countries. In fact, its officials work actively to negate them, according to former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

And it’s worth remembering what former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said at Davos in 2017, a few months after the Brexit referendum. He said there had been “a temptation in many EU member states to play the game of ‘who is nicest to the UK,’ in terms of granting special status in the single market,” that would have resulted in “an organized suicide of the EU.” The EU’s message, he said, was that the negative consequences of leaving would serve as “an admonition to be a bit more careful in the game of ‘destroying the EU’ in order to improve their positions party-wise or personally or domestically.”

The EU is not structured as a democracy in which power is devolved. Rather, it exists mostly as a system of rules, policies, and laws that are incredibly difficult to change or break. There is no way to negotiate with a body that cannot change its mind if just one of its 28 members won’t go along.

We are now at the end of the Article 50 process, and Britain must either change its Brexit “red lines” or leave the EU on March 29, according to of the EU’s preapproved options. Those are:

  • May’s deal.
  • The Norway deal.
  • No deal.
  • Remain in the EU.

May, to her credit, appears to one of few people in the House of Commons who actually understand this. Until Tuesday there was no other deal than May’s deal on the table. The implication of Tuesday night’s vote is that only the other three options are now available.

The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is hoping, somehow, to get a general election that will put him in power and allow him to negotiate a new, better deal. He will face the same situation as May, with the same options. For Brussels, a general election will be yet another footnote.

A majority of British people, and a majority in Parliament, want some kind of functioning relationship with the EU post-Brexit. But the delusion that a defeat for May is somehow also a defeat for the EU could bring about the opposite of what that majority wants: reaching the end of Article 50 with no deal. To satisfy that majority, Parliament must now choose between Norway and Remain.

The Norway option is tempting because it fulfills the Leave promise but keeps Britain economically tied to Europe – the damage would be limited.

Remain can be reached by staging a second referendum.

The worst-case scenario is for MPs to believe that they are still playing poker, and to call the EU’s bluff. As Verhofstadt said Tuesday night: “What we will not let happen, deal or no deal, is that the mess in British politics is again imported into European politics.”