Last Wednesday May 3rd, Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street and made a speech in reaction to an article printed over the previous weekend in German national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). The first minutes of the speech are notable for May’s gross overreaction, xenophobic rhetoric and myriad inaccuracies. I write this just, ‘for the record’.
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BBC Youtube video of the first half of May’s speech
Official reaction followed the now well-established pattern of May’s government. First, silence, then a couple of civil servants and senior ministers dismiss it and strike conciliatory tones, then even May joins in to shrug it off as “Brussels gossip“. However, as the days pass and Theresa, alone, thinks longer and harder about it all, she wildly changes tack and charges out the doors of Downing Street to issue a proclamation.
May took to the podium like a president declaring war. She weaponized the negotiations, harming goodwill and opportunities for mutually beneficial compromises. She lied; misrepresenting the facts or speaking without evidence. Perhaps it was merely to win the upcoming general election harder, or because she felt personally attacked and lashed out in anger, or because she still genuinely believes her own rhetoric about the pot of gold at the end of a perfect Brexit.
Regardless, this was a wholly irresponsible speech from our Prime Minister, our effective head of state. It was akin to Bush’s proclamation on September 11th 2001 that “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”, or the moment when Blair stood up in Parliament and told us that “[Saddam] has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes” or when Trump said that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Of course, the papers lapped it up. They live for the story, and a giving-the-EU-what-for story is a license to sell copies!
For the record
In the last few days, we have seen just how tough these talks are likely to be.
From what’s been reported about what she said, which May’s not denied, we’d have to conclude that shes making them tough. First, she tried to insist on keeping all talks confidential until the end of the process, despite the fact that legislatures in member states and the European Parliament (yes, the EU really is a democratic institution) will have to agree to the deal. Second, she genuinely couldn’t understand the angry reaction of EU negotiators when she straight up asked “let us make Brexit a success.” What if they’d asked her, “let us use the UK to prove that our member states won’t survive outside the EU.” What would her reaction have been? This is not the way to begin a negotiation.
Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press.
One German newspaper, in German, and in print only. What British, UKIPian hubris to believe that there is such a thing as the monolithic continental press when there are 27(!) other member states. Besides, we have no recorded negotiating position except what May feels like saying on the day, so how could it have been misrepresented?
The European Commission’s negotiating stance has hardened.
The European Commission’s negotiating stance reported the article is the exact same stance EU and European leaders have been briefing for the last couple of months and which was agreed three days later by all 27 member states. After David Davis threatened not to pay off our bill, which we owe, as part of our contribution is due in arrears, Junker informed him that in such a situation, having reneged on our contract, he would not be inclined to discuss any trade deal. This is not a hardening; our Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union threatened, and was summarily informed of the cost.
Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials.
See above. Threats were issued by May and her ministers, and the European side informed them of the cost of following through on those. The Council of Europe have been completely transparent about their negotiating position and their initial aims. May and Davis refuse to tell us, the British public what their negotiating position is, while issuing the most irresponsible and outlandish threats in private to the Europeans.
All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June.
The EU set out their timetable for the initial stages of negotiation almost two months ago, in mid March when Parliament passed the bill to allow Theresa May to initiate Article 50 proceedings. Theresa May suddenly decided to hold a general election during this time, but for obvious reasons, both sides are eager to continue negotiations whenever possible. This involved the fateful dinner on April 26th, and, genuinely terrified by the result and wanting to calmly began preparing the German public – who are the Europeans set to suffer most from a hard British exit – for such a disastrous outcome, leaked to a German paper.
As ardent Brexiteers continue to insist, Europe benefits from UK trade and influence. They want us and they need us. Particularly German manufactures who sell to us and policy makers who enjoy British influence as a counterbalance to often conflicting French, Spanish and Italian interests. As was abundantly clear 12 months ago, the rest of the EU emphatically do not want Brexit. Why would they want a weak British government that will be unable to negotiate coherently? They need this wrapped up in 18 months, and they want a deal that both sides can accept and use as a starting point for a new British-European relationship.
The centre-right dominates Europe and Corbyn has very few allies in positions of power on the continent. FAZ who reported this is a centre-right newspaper. The economic policies of the Conservative government of the last six years are exactly the same as those of the European Central Bank and the European Commission; austerity to pay off public debts, increased capital requirements for banks, no rises in taxation, very loose monetary policy and quantitative easing to stimulate investment and prevent deflation.
Thus, what part of this article, and the Brexit concerns subsequently aired by some EU leaders, targets our general election? None.
securing the narrative
In response to Theresa’s big Brexit speech in January I wrote that “the [real] purpose was to identify the legitimate targets of blame well in advance of any failure”.
May’s reaction last week is just another thread being woven into this narrative. A narrative that she’s been carefully stitching together since then, and if she’s still our PM on June 9th, will continue to sew up for the next five years.
At best, Brexit will fail like a limp balloon; three years of Parliamentary time wasted, tens of billions of pounds spent, and we’ll be in about the same position we were at the beginning of 2016. At worst it will be an economic shock of the magnitude of 2008.
By the time the dust has settled and this is all abundantly clear in 2019/20, the British public will ‘know’ exactly who’s to blame for the whole, sorry mess. It won’t be them, and it won’t be May.