The subtle rhetoric of Barnier’s now-famous graph

4th January 2018

The now famous graph of the EU’s Brexit negotiation team is an impressive exercise in subtle rhetoric.

The UK’s “red lines” are explicitly stated.

And as one goes downward (of course) from left to right one can only blame the UK for adopting such positions.

At the base of the stair is where the UK must end up, by reason of its “red lines”.

But this outcome is not only because of the UK’s positions.

The EU also has its own red lines – but you will not see them in the graph.

For example: all four freedoms, the single market is indivisible, no cherry-picking, etc.

Those red lines are taken as given.

And so it is the UK which looks unreasonable and indeed foolish.

Of course, there is something in this: the UK has adopted a number of positions and seems unwilling (or unable) to think through the implications of those positions.

The graph shows those implications well.

But what is not said explicitly is more important than what is said – and these unstated red lines exemplify how the EU has (so far) controlled the terms of the Brexit negotiations.


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14 thoughts on “The subtle rhetoric of Barnier’s now-famous graph”

  1. It’s striking that there ARE red lines, though: between South Korea and Canada and ‘No deal’/WTO. These red lines display ‘surely you’ve ruled this out, haven’t you?’, so bracketing a Canada-style FTA from the right as well as from the left. The slinky goes down the staircase and then lacks the momentum to move beyond what’s at the bottom?

  2. The EU’s “red lines” are created by treaties which the UK signed up to. So we should be aware of them. The UK is foolish in thinking that these “red lines” can be easily or quickly changed. The question which governs whether they can be changed at all is whether the EU values the integrity of the single market as it stands more than it can be influenced by the loss of a trade relationship with the UK. Generally speaking, Remainers assume that it does: some Leavers take this to be merely a negotiating position (they need us more than we need them etc.), others may not think about it at all. Mr Green seems to assume that the graph is a propaganda vehicle to assist the EU. My own view is that the EU probably doesn’t care that much but is prepared to throw us a lifeline if we haven’t drifted too far away. BTW, so far attention has been on the Irish border but a very interesting question is who will pay for the customs infrastructure to deal with UK imports into the EU.

  3. Not particularly subtle and no more than a rhetorical device. While the stairs go downward, one has to wonder what it is that descending the stairs represents. Whatever it is, the analogy is misleading as it is characteristic of a flight of stairs that each riser is the same height. So assuming that some sort of value is indicated by position on the staircase (e.g. extent of freedom to trade, economic cost etc) the implication is that each step down will ‘lose’ more value and that two steps down will lose twice as much as value as one step down. Thus the value gap between being in the EU and a Switzerland-type arrangement is as great as that between a Switzerland-type arrangement and a Turkey-type arrangement. Whatever the value represented, this is most unlikely to be so. Indeed, as at the bottom of the staircase the value reduces to nothing, if this were a chart, it would be a clear case of “y-axis abuse”.

    1. I used to use stair diagrams when I was teaching certain legal concepts, to express escalating gravity for instance. Step changes.

      I’m guessing this wasn’t a unique teaching tool of mine!

      I know another friend uses it when explaining different service level options too.

      I doubt it’s is more sinister than that, but maybe I’m insufficiently cynical!

  4. Yes and No. The UK has changed its positions, while the EU has kept its principles and positions from way back.
    The FoM is in the Threaty of Rome:

    “Treaty of Rome (EEC)

    Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC Treaty)


    It set up the European Economic Community (EEC) which brought together 6 countries (Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) to work towards integration and economic growth, through trade.
    It created a common market based on the free movement of:

    Even the “European Coal and Steel Community, ECSC Treaty” from 1951, has FoM for workers as a basic principle:

    “As far as the movement of skilled workers was concerned, the Treaty provided for the removal by Member States of restrictions on employment based on nationality.”

    The ECJ also dates back to the ECSC and was established i 1952.

    The EU read lines are part of the EU itself since the early days. They are as stated in all the treaties – Lisbon being the latest – since then. Supported by the UK ever since joining in 1973.

    The EU positions are supported by 450 million in EU27. The Little England with a mere 65 million incl the NoBrexit voting Scotland and NI cannot expect the EU to change any positions of substance (except maybe for some face saving words in “red, white and blue”).

    Trade negotiations are not about being nice! It’s a brutal adult world and all about own interests.

    Lars :)

  5. So both sets of Red Lines lean very close to a no-deal, probably the worst outcome for both sides and both sides seem to accept that. We know that Davis Sector Analysis has little financial data, the last EU analysis fills in some of the gap, so who is in a better position if some Red Lines need to be amended? Is Davis the canniest negotiator to rely on on the most important trade negotiations for a generation? Have sound byte negotiations gone away?
    The will-of-the-people remains to be exploited by anyone who can aggregate a current majority around some meaning for it, there was no consensus on any Red Lines in the referendum.

  6. Of course, even the Canada / South Korea option should have a big red stop sign too, since there is a UK “red line” that there will be no divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland…

  7. To be fair, the EU red lines are not new and fundamental to the common market. UK red lines are the design of Theresa May and her team, based on their interpretation of the referendum result.

  8. From the other side of the herring pond the UK not only looks folish bit is also unrealistic. When there is a divorce a lot of things have to be arranged, for example who takes care of and who pays for the children and many other things have to be arranged.
    As far as I can see it, the UK wanted to leave the EU and left a couple of unpaid bills and unsolved problems because of UK’s wish to leave EU. One can probably blame the EU for not stopping the UK wanting to leave the EU. Instead EU respected UK’s choice to leave. Of course there are some questions to arrange. If you leave a union you can not let the other participants with the unpaid bills, what seemed to be the intention of UK. As I see it the only victims of this policy are the people of the UK who have to pay the bill. The great winner will be mr. Putin I suppose.
    I seriously hope the UK will recurr on this un lessed course.

    1. we have said we will pay the bill, but also that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, so we may delay paying the bill pending acceptable terms for leaving.

  9. The EU’s stance was clear to the UK right from the start:
    “That is why the United Kingdom does not seek membership of the single market: we understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no “cherry picking””
    From T. May’s letter to D. Tusk triggering art. 50
    So please explain, why the EU should give up a position that has been accepted already?

  10. We could always ask the electorate which one they think they voted for/against as this is a nice summary of the options sorely absent from the referendum silliness-posing-as-fact we heard from both sides. It would also stop the irritating habit most politicians have of telling us their own warped interpretations of what we voted on.

    It then would be interesting to have a Z axis on the graphic showing how long each different level of new agreement may take in the case of the UK. This would change it into a really very interesting graph giving us the opportunity to quiz the electorate on their opinion as to which they actually preferred as a course of action.

    Call me a ‘silly democracy loving sausage’ if you wish!

  11. What is there to negotiate? We are speaking of organizational rules, which normally change only for sufficient reasons. You want me to sign off on your PhD dissertation? But the rules call for at least 200 pages. You say you are special, well then prove it.
    Speaking as an American tech/global business prof, long resident on the Continent, we know 80% of UK economy is service-related Most of that can be transferred to the EU27 by legally forming firms & residing there. We have that as a fact, so let’s get onto free borders for goods & people. Now that is interesting….

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