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Brexit’s game of fools

In the game of chess, the grandmaster seeks to dominate the game from the opening move.  The amateur, in contrast, risks making so bad an opening that the game is lost immediately.  One such opening is known as “fool’s mate,” which requires so foolish an opening move that none but a complete novice would make it.

The same, it would appear, is true of negotiating Brexit.

The popular explanation for why things appear to be going so badly for the British negotiators is that Mrs May made a catastrophic error of judgement in calling an entirely unnecessary election in April; one that cost the Tories their majority in parliament.  Far from strengthening her hand in the Brexit negotiations, the swing to Labour – particularly among the young – has left Mrs May mortally wounded, and unable to command the respect of EU leaders.

However, according to Jim Edwards at Business Insider:

“That narrative is wrong.

“The record books will show that the sudden, unscheduled general election was not her worst decision. Rather, it came six months earlier on October 2, 2016, when she decided to trigger Article 50 the following March before she properly understood how Article 50 actually works.”

Edwards cites evidence given to the Commons Treasury select committee by Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK permanent representative to the EU in Brussels:

“I did say last autumn I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work because the moment you invoke Article 50, the 27 [other EU countries] dictate the rules of the game and they will set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them.

“My advice as a European negotiator was that that was a moment of key leverage and if you wanted to avoid being screwed on the negotiations in terms of the sequencing, you had to negotiate with the key European leaders and the key people at the top of the institutions and say: ‘I will invoke Article 50 but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate and it’s got to operate like this otherwise this is not going work for me.’”

Immediately after the unexpected referendum result last June, EU leaders were urging the British government to get on with triggering Article 50.  This was nothing short of psychological warfare, since it was designed to wind up the head bangers on the Tory right, who feared that the government was seeking to overturn the referendum result.  In fact, not triggering Article 50 was the only means by which the UK government could force the EU27 negotiators onto the back foot.

Once triggered, Article 50 is a done deal.  The UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 irrespective of whether a Brexit deal has been reached.  And there is every reason for the EU negotiators to avoid reaching a deal.  As Edwards points out:

“The only way for an Article 50 country to emerge with an advantage is if that nation negotiated the structure of its trade deal before triggering the deadline. (The EU’s ‘no prenegotiations’ stance is a political principle, not a law.)

“Without an advance deal in place, Article 50 is simply a trap that lets the EU punish anyone who tries to leave.”

Here the Brexiters fall into the trap of mistaking the institutions of the EU with various exporting companies within EU member states.  The assumption is that because French cheesemakers, Italian vineyards and German car factories stand to lose out if the UK is forced onto World Trade Organisation rules; that the EU institutions will be obliged to come to a favourable agreement.  More, however, is at stake than the fortunes of mere companies (which can be bailed out by the European Central Bank if need be).  The EU institutions will be fatally undermined if they allow a former member state to walk out with a good deal.  With the rise of hard line nationalist movements across Europe, the risk is that any number of member states might follow the UK out of the door unless leaving is made overly punitive.

Even prominent leave supporters are waking up to just how bad a “punishment deal” is going to be.  Peter North, editor of the Leave Alliance blog outlines Britain’s direction of travel:

“We can expect to see a major rationalisation of the NHS and what functions it will perform. It will be more of a skeleton service than ever. I expect they will have trouble staffing it. Economic conditions more than any immigration control will bring numbers down to a trickle.

“In every area of policy a lot of zombie projects will be culled and the things that survive on very slender justifications will fall. We can also expect banks to pull the plug in under-performing businesses. Unemployment will be back to where it was in the 80’s.

“… Anyone who considers themselves ‘Just about managing’ right now will look upon this time as carefree prosperity. There are going to be a lot of very pissed off people.

“… Effectively we are looking at a ten year recession. Nothing ever experienced by those under 50.”

All this because Theresa May proved too weak and wobbly to stand up to her own back bench and refuse to trigger Article 50 before a deal had been reached.

Then again, the whole sorry saga has been a tale of weak Tory leaders failing to stand up to the head bangers on the Tory right.  The promise of a referendum was only made in an attempt to prevent Tory voters switching to UKIP.  The referendum was fought like a public school debating club event that ordinary people were not meant to turn up to.  And then, when the public delivered the wrong verdict, not one of the Tory leaders who had plunged Britain into its worse crisis since August 1914 had the first idea what to do next.  Cameron flounced out of the door.  Johnson and Gove stabbed each other in the back.  The fence-sitting May – onto whom the Tories projected the ghost of Margaret Thatcher – became the Tories last best hope.

All that remains today is the torturous process of agreeing the “divorce settlement” – the amount of cash the UK will pay to leave together with border arrangements and the future of EU citizens in Britain and UK citizens in the EU.  No doubt the EU negotiators will drag this negotiation into 2018 in order to delay trade deal talks that will never be allowed to reach a conclusion.

In this chess game, the wrong moves have already been made.  The endgame is clear for all to see.  The British people will pay the price.  But we should never forget that it was the Tories who proved to be the biggest fools in the Brexit version of fool’s mate.

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