Brexit Diary: What does Donald Tusk mean by “realism”?

26th September 2017

Today Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, came to London.

After the meeting, Tusk’s remarks were:

I feel cautiously optimistic about the constructive and more realistic tone of the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence and of our discussion today.

This shows that the philosophy of “having a cake and eating it” is finally coming to an end, or at least I hope so.

And that’s good news.

But of course no-one will ever tell me that Brexit is a good thing because, as I have always said, in fact Brexit is only about damage control, and I didn’t change my opinion.

As you know, we will discuss our future relations with the United Kingdom once there is so-called “sufficient progress”.

The two sides are working hard at it. But if you asked me and if today Member States asked me, I would say there is no “sufficient progress” yet. But we will work on it.

And this was his tweet:-

The most significant thing, of course, is that the “sufficient progress” requirement has not been met.  This means the future relationship will not be discussed in the next (October) negotiation round at least.

But this is not the first time Tusk has talked about Brexit and realism.

This is from last September, in the months after the referendum vote:

More importantly, this is from when Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech expressly affirmed that the UK would be leaving the Single Market and Customs Union:

So the UK was becoming more “realistic” in January, and again is becoming more “realistic” now.

Over time, the speech of Tusk last October becomes more significant.  I have referred to it in my FT piece today (on transition arrangements).  It is worth (re-)reading regularly as Brexit continues.

In that speech, this passage in particular sticks in the mind as what Tusk means by “real” when he calls thing “realistic” (emphasis added):

The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us.

There will be no cakes on the table. For anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.

If you ask me if there is any alternative to this bad scenario, I would like to tell you that yes, there is.

And I think it is useless to speculate about “soft Brexit” because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned.

These would be purely theoretical speculations.

In my opinion, the only real alternative to a “hard Brexit” is “no Brexit”.

Even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility.

We will conduct the negotiations in good faith, defend the interests of the EU 27, minimise the costs and seek the best possible deal for all.

But as I have said before, I am afraid that no such outcome exists that will benefit either side.

Of course it is and can only be for the UK to assess the outcome of the negotiations and determine if Brexit is really in their interest.

Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt’s words: “a full understanding of all the consequences of the political process is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history”. 

In other words, Tusk believes the UK becomes more “realistic” the closer it comes to accepting that the only “real” alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit.

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13 thoughts on “Brexit Diary: What does Donald Tusk mean by “realism”?”

  1. Given that the Brexit manifesto was based on fantasy and deception, it’s little surprise to find that realism is in short supply.

  2. Procrastination continues. It becomes more and more obvious that with the passage of time ( rather quickly ) agreement remains elusive. I dread to think that in a few years time we are led to say that we should have ‘bitten the bullet’ and walked embracing a hard exit.

  3. Mrs May is not pursuing Brexit because she believes, or because a majority of her parliamentary colleagues believe, it is in the UK’s best interests. Mr Tusk should know this. She is pursuing it because the referendum has painted Parliament into a corner.

    There is very little evidence that many voted Leave because of the purported economic benefits, but there is ample evidence that the Leave vote was driven by questions of identity. Mr Tusk may well be correct that the economically sensible option is no Brexit. However reversing Brexit would create a large number of very angry people who feel their identity has been disrespected, with consequences potentially even worse than Brexit.

    1. The current situation is also creating a large number of very angry people who feel their identity has been disrespected – those of us who are British and European and now see our rights about to be stripped away from us against our will.

    2. Look at a map of Leave/Remain areas of the UK. All of Scotland went Remain; the border areas of N Ireland likewise; the greater London area also. Wales was more equivocal. But little-England-beyond-London was Leave, and they swung the vote. If then ‘identity’ was a significant driver for so many (and it seems probable), isn’t the UK really a very polarised place? And one where a large proportion will be very unhappy whether Brexit goes through or not?

    3. True. However Leave was carried on the tiniest margin on the promise that there would be no real cost. There isn’t a transition available to a new relationship with the EU. There is exit to no relationship, maybe followed by an unspecified but limited arrangement in the indeterminate future. Real Brexit is very uncertain, very costly and very painful. There isn’t the mandate, nor I believe, the will for it.

      The alternative is maintaining the current relationship, either as full members or rule taking clients of the EU in the form of the EEA and customs union.

  4. Surely it’s more that Tusk believes the UK becomes more “realistic” the closer it comes to accepting that there is no alternative to a hard Brexit? I don’t see how we can get back from here. And I don’t see how we can go on from here either.

  5. I think this may be the most pertinent article of all the articles I have read on Brexit, and I have read quite a few.

  6. If you disrespect the people’s economics they also get very angry. They have been promised ‘Sunny Uplands’ will they wait two generations for there grandchildren to deliver it?

  7. This is astute commentary. For Tusk it is a binary choice between hard and no Brexit based on what he’s heard from the UK side with regard to its red lines and to the EU’s red lines.

    Yet after his 13th October 2016 speech referred and linked to in this piece, Tusk told a reporter who asked whether the UK could unilaterally withdraw Article 50 after it has been triggered, “formally, legally, of course, yes. There are no legal barriers for this kind of decision”

    It was a curious comment. Curious, because it was clear and unequivocal, curious because he is not a lawyer and curious because the question had never been before the CJEU (the only source with the authority to give such an answer). Tusk is a cautious, intelligent and realistic man. Why would he make such an incautious, bold, even outrageous claim without fear of immediate contradiction or disagreement by some other EU source, including the President of the court?

    Indeed, it would be reasonable to think that the President of the court should have considered Tusk’s statement to be insolent and a breach of protocol as well as wrong (since the court had not ruled, it must be wrong). And shouldn’t the President of the Commission have been concerned that the statement had committed the EU to a position it might later not wish to be committed to and divested its negotiator of the supreme power the Article 50 process had apparently handed the EU – the power of time and control? Tusk had, after all, gone on to say, “I have no doubt that this scenario will be acceptable for all European partners.” So, according to him, not only does the UK have a unilateral legal right to withdraw A50, but EU27 wouldn’t object anyway.

    Yet, not much of significance was made of this. It seemed to emerge on twitter, David Allen Green then reported it in the FT, but perhaps it went unreported elsewhere. We might have expected at least one bold headline along the lines of: “EU council President confirms UK can choose to take back Article 50 notice and reverse Brexit before withdrawal agreement is signed”. It never appeared (as far as I am aware) in the UK press or anywhere else. During the subsequent Miller case, the Supreme Court chose not to pursue the question with the CJEU (and Tusk’s statement was not referenced). The court appeared to accept whilst never actually ruling, that after pulling the A50 trigger the bullet leaves the gun at that moment and must, in due course, reach its target.

    But then, on 12th July, exactly nine months after Tusk’s statement, came this in a “factsheet” from the Commission press office:

    “Once triggered, can Article 50 be revoked?
    It was the decision of the United Kingdom to trigger Article 50. But once triggered, it cannot be unilaterally reversed. Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of the notification.”

    http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-17-2001_en.htm

    The commission, by implication, accepts that Article 50 can be reversed by agreement. We know what that agreement would mean – unanimous by EU27. It is the same agreement that Tusk said he had “no doubt” would be forthcoming. But, now we also have a contradiction and a disagreement. The commission has flatly contradicted the President of the Council and stated that there is no unilateral right to withdraw Article 50. So, now we have the two prominent EU sources at the forefront of Brexit negotiations (the President of the very council that directs the commission that appointed Barnier) having both publicly made clear and unequivocal statements that are in wholesale disagreement with each other on a subject connected to the mechanics of reversing Brexit, which neither (it being a matter for a legal judgment) is competent to make. If I were the President of the CJEU, I’d be shouting about separation of powers, that politics is one thing but the law is something else and wondering why the council and commission appear to be engaged in a turf war on my turf albeit that only one bullet each has been fired 9 months apart.

    What on earth is going on? Brexit reversal is not for the moment in the Overton window, but it may well be within the next twelve months. But, how dare the commission contradict the President of the council in public? Tusk has not retracted his statement.

    1. @Rob Hughes
      (From your link) to the question: “Once triggered, can Article 50 be revoked?” The answer: “[…] it cannot be unilaterally reversed. Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of the notification.”

      So why qualify the nature of withdrawal? Are they leaving open the door that the EU27 + UK might revoke Art 50? If so, Art 50 is also silent on that option.

      The weight of legal opinion, especially the ‘Three Knights’, favours Tusk’s view – providing the revocation is given before the withdrawal agreement comes into force.

  8. Hannah Arendt’s formulation is, of course, both paradoxical and confused, the confusion being between events and the chronologies within which they occur. Tusk’s position is one slowly becoming evident to those in the UK worried enough to listen carefully to what he is saying.

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