Ferreting for a #Brexit that travels…

3 Oct

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Sept 25th 2018 

uk ferretJust when you thought Brexit could not get worse… guess what happens… it gets worse.

I am not talking about the last week’s Salzburg debacle (though I will later), rather I am referring to the news coming from the UK’s Brexit ministry yesterday that post Brexit an English person will not be able to travel to the EU with their ferret.

Was it for this that Margaret Thatcher hand-bagged Mitterrand and Kohl?

According to the latest guidance from Her Majesty’s Government on what might happen if there is a no-deal Brexit, British pet owners who want to take their dogs, cats or ferrets on holidays with them to the EU post Brexit will have to prepare for travel “at least four months ahead in advance of the date they wish to travel”.

No longer will they be able to just pop a ferret down their trousers and head away for a day trip to Bruges. It gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase compo-culture (apologies for that appallingly belaboured Last of the Summer Wine gag. Watching all those repeats on UK Gold has melted my brain).

This ‘travelling with pets’ advisory is the latest of about 75 pieces of specific guidance which the British government has published on what might happen if the UK leaves the EU next March without a deal or two-year transitional period.

This is not a theoretical exercise. As we head towards the end of September, a No Deal Brexit is not just a strong possibility it is now a high probability. This situation did not change at Salzburg, it just became clearer.

As Bobby McDonagh, Ireland’s former Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy set out in his Irish Times article last Friday, Prime Minister May was neither ‘ambushed’ nor ‘disrespected’ in Salzburg. She went there with the goal of going over the head of the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier by appealing directly to the 27 heads of government and her plan back fired badly.

The problem with her plan was that it was never going to work. It was just the latest in a long series of events that shows that the British government, particularly the team of Tory ministers that May has assembled, do not understand the EU or Brussels dynamics.

One of the biggest misunderstandings, but one that is not limited to Theresa May or even Jeremy Corbyn, is the notion that the talks between this beleaguered British Government the EU are a classic negotiation. They are not.

This is a topic which my old friend and BEERG colleague Tom Hayes has explored many times in his excellent www.beergbrexit.blog (declaration of interests, I am also involved in this blog).

Tom is an experienced negotiator from the world of labour relations. He has been involved in many complex employee/employer negotiations across the EU over the past two decades and has written extensively about the key elements required for a good outcome, including here.

In a classic negotiation you have two sides who enter the talks in the belief that they can find a deal that will be better than their current situation. They work to find mutually beneficial outcomes. One of the ways they do this is by managing both the expectations of their own stakeholders and those of the other party.

This is not what we have with Brexit.

Brexit is an UK demand. Britain has every right to leave the EU, even if it costs it 1000s of jobs and reputational damage – that is a hole of the UK’s own making.

The EU side – and this obviously includes Ireland – believes, indeed it knows, that Brexit will damage both sides. It knows that Brexit increases costs and does not deliver benefits.

The EU’s goal at the talks is not to find some mythical half way compromise between the UK being in or out of the EU: it is damage limitation, pure and simple. Barnier’s clear aim in the talks is to limit the damage that Brexit will do to the EU and its 27 continuing member states.

What Theresa May attempted to do at Salzburg was to go over Barnier’s head and ask the individual EU heads of government to pay more for the damage that Britain was causing. How could she have ever imagined that any of them would agree to this? Especially when those heads of government know how isolated and weakened she is.

What the British political system and the British media and commentariat continually fails to grasp is that what it describes as EU “intransigence” or the EU “punishing” the UK, is simply the EU limiting the damage that Brexit will do to the interests of the 27 member-states.

Brexit is an UK demand. Britain has every right to leave the EU, even if it costs it 1000s of jobs and reputational damage – that is a hole of the UK’s own making.

What Britain does not have a right to expect however, is for the EU 27 – and in particularly Ireland – to happily and contentedly pick up the tab, economic and political, for the Tory party’s political folly.

The continuing failure of the British political establishment, both red and blue, to heed, never mind acknowledge, the impact of Brexit on its closest neighbours is indicative of a political system that is in continuing decline.

But it is hardly surprising. Should we be shocked that ministers in London pay little attention to what their counterparts in Dublin or the Hague think when they ignore their own devolved colleagues in Edinburgh or Cardiff?

The leadership vacuum at the top of Britain’s two main parties makes our own party system look inspiring – and its not often you find that sentiment on this website.

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