In trying to communicate the hugely complicated process of negotiation involved in Brexit, it is unsurprising that commentators and politicians have resorted to simple language and concepts with which most people are familiar.
A good deal. A bad deal. A divorce bill. Walking away from the table. No deal.
But talking in this way about the most complicated political process with which this country has been engaged since the Second World War can be seriously misleading.
For a start, this is not a negotiation between equals. We are the ones saying we want to leave the EU, but nonetheless wanting access to its market, the ability to ignore a new customs border of our own creation in Northern Ireland, and (at the moment) even wanting to pull out mid-stream of various joint projects and spending commitments. Later, we will also be asking to stay involved in key EU agencies such as the Air Safety Agency, the Medicines Agency, Europol and others, and probably expect continued cooperation in research and security.
Nor is it a negotiation you can walk away from without a deal. Unless we change our minds about Brexit itself and decide to stay, then, unlike most negotiations, ‘no deal’ doesn’t retain the status quo. ‘No deal’ results in a sudden and complete exclusion from a legal framework which is vital for our nation’s economy and for people’s lives in hundreds of practical ways. The idea that, in order to strengthen its position in the negotiations, Britain must show that it is prepared to walk away without a deal, is equivalent to pointing a gun to your own head and saying “Give me what I want or I’ll shoot myself!”
A third peculiarity is that the government is spending more time negotiating with itself than with the EU. The deep divisions in what is anyway a minority government paralyse it every step of the way. No one can forget that David Davis turned up at the first negotiation meeting without a single position paper – the EU had already published theirs. We still don’t know, a year and a half after the referendum, what the government wants to try to secure on many key issues.
This partly reflects the fact that no Brexit deal can actually deliver the promises made by the Leave campaign – and Brexiteer ministers don’t want to admit that. Indeed, they don’t even want to publish the impact assessments the government has made on the consequences of Brexit, which must be dire.
It is also because the government cannot find consensus on some of the unpalatable choices facing Britain, such as keeping easy access to the single market but then having to follow most of its rules, or having a more distant relationship, at even higher economic cost.
Finally, it is because some Brexiteer ministers actually want to keep some issues open. They won’t let Theresa May or David Davis reach a compromise.
This is especially true for the current stand-off about the so-called “divorce bill” (which is in fact a calculation to be made of the UK’s share of joint projects that we already agreed to undertake). Despite Theresa May saying in her Florence speech, that “The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership”, the right wing Brexiteers won’t let her settle. They want to turn this into a full-blown row with the EU, and keep it going as long as possible.
The reason is that they are in a panic. Opinion polls are showing that the public has not rallied, as expected, behind Brexit. If anything, it is edging against Brexit as the chaos, confusion and economic damage of the Tory Brexitshambles becomes more apparent.
To stop this going further the Brexiteers calculate that they can use this issue to deflect criticism and inflame public opinion against the EU. They rely upon the easy caricature of a grasping EU trying to blackmail Britain into paying an unwarranted exit fee. They hope the complexity of the issue will deter people from looking beyond the headlines. The tried and tested tactic of Blaming Brussels will, they hope, lessen calls for a rethink on Brexit itself.
This in turn holds up the negotiations on other issues. Despite a lot of bluster beforehand, David Davis agreed to the sequencing of settling the ‘divorce’ issues before moving on to the much more complicated issues of the future trading relationship.
But the long delay in reaching these issues increases the chances of a botched negotiation, of more confusion, chaos and cost. Far from saving money (and the proceeds going to the NHS), Brexit is turning out to be an economically costly exercise.
Leave voters are entitled to feel swindled.