1st March 2018
When historians one day seek to make sense of Brexit what will be the most useful documents for them to look at so as to understand the respective approaches of the UK and the EU?
For the EU, it will be straight-forward.
To understand how the EU approached the UK’s departure from the EU, the historian will be able to look at position papers and other official documents.
Of course, these documents will need to be supplemented by other evidence not in the public domain. But there has been a remarkable consistency between what the EU has said about Brexit and what has done. One set of public statements has led to another.
For example, you can trace most parts of the draft Withdrawal Agreement back to the December joint report, and then in turn back to the position papers from the negotiation.
You can then trace the structure of those position papers back to the EU’s approach to sequencing, and then all the way back to the first press releases after the Brexit vote.
This is not to say that the EU’s approach is correct.
There are legitimate concerns that, for example, it may be over-reaching its hand on the Northern Ireland issue.
And if the EU does not end up with a deal at all, because what it offers is not acceptable to the UK government then all of this will have led to nothing.
But the one thing which is most apparent is that to understand the EU’s approach to Brexit means you have to understand process.
The EU is process-driven. That is why one can say that “Brexit by timetable” is taking place.
But what should the historian look at to understand the UK’s side?
It would not be many official documents. Most of the UK’s formal documents on Brexit have not been impressive.
There was, for example, a rushed and improvised white paper (published just so as to meet a Labour demand before the Article 50 vote). The white paper has hardly been referred to since.
And the less said about the sector analyses the better.
Even the Article 50 notification went on for pages when only a couple of paragraphs at most were needed for the document to do its job.
The historian would have to look elsewhere.
The historians would have to look at newspaper articles, especially those by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
But most of all a historian would need to look at the rhetoric, on both sides, of the relationship between the government and its supporters, on the backbenches and in the media.
For, in contrast to the EU’s emphasis on process, the UK government’s emphasis has been on publicity.
This is not to say this is a bad thing: a government taking controversial decisions is right to mobilise and maintain support.
The problem is that this can lead to a mismatch: in their approaches to Brexit, the EU and the UK government are often like vessels passing in the darkness.
(And this is not an issue unique to Brexit. In America, Trump and his political supporters seem to believe that tweets and memes are how to deal with the slow methodical march of Robert Meuller and the FBI.)
Process is not everything: a bureaucracy rarely wins over hearts or even minds.
And so when process prevails, as it usually will, the populists can seek to discredit it and blame it for the populists’ own failings.
Regardless of the outcome, what the UK and EU do not have on Brexit is any genuine engagement.
And this is so needless.
The UK has an outstanding civil service and diplomatic service.
UK officials have negotiated opt-out after opt-out with the EU.
It was even a UK (and Conservative) member of the European Commission who put in place the Single Market in the late 1980s.
UK officials are more than a match for their EU counterparts, but only if they are allowed to be so.
But on Brexit, the UK has thrown away this benefit.
David Cameron did not allow the civil service to prepare for the possibility of a “Leave” vote – even though that was one of two foreseeable outcomes of a binary referendum.
Theresa May created two new pop-up Whitehall departments for Brexit, both of which have not fared well, instead of using the inherent strengths of the Foreign Office, the Treasury, and UKRep.
She then carelessly lost Sir Ivan Rogers because she did not like what he had to say.
Just this week, Liam Fox has derided a former senior trade department official.
It is almost as if that UK ministers do not want to do well in the negotiations with the EU. They instead just want to win support for their position.
But to do well against those who are process-driven, you need to be able to match them. And on Brexit, the UK could have been the equal to the EU in the negotiations.
So if the UK does not do well with Brexit, it may well be that a fair-minded historian does not conclude that this was because the UK “failed” – but because the UK did not even engage.
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