September 17, 2019
Beware of the diplomacy of humiliation
There is a rule in journalism, not known to many, that you never show an empty chair when an interviewee or discussant does not show up. We assume the same rule applies to diplomacy. This is not only about fairness, but just as importantly about self-interest. Once journalists and diplomats resort to humiliation as tools, they close down their communication channels. Xavier Bettel seems to have forgotten this when he pulled the stunt of an empty-lectern press conference with Boris Johnson after the British prime minister decided he did not want to face an open-air press conference with demonstrators in the background. We believe that stunts like these will ultimately reinforce the Brexiters' determination. And we do not think that all Remainers will be happy about this either.
Even without such gestures, there are many obstacles to a successful passage of a withdrawal agreement. Jean-Claude Juncker is right, of course, that the negotiations cannot start in earnest until the UK makes serious proposals - which has not happened yet. It is quite possible that Johnson is really not seeking a deal at all, only the satisfaction of walking away from it. Be as it may, the EU should try its utmost to seek a deal. Luxembourg may be one of the few all-round beneficiaries of a no-deal Brexit, but this is not true for those parts of Europe that are currently experiencing a deep manufacturing recession from a fall in exports. Imagine what the sudden imposition of a 10% car tariff would do to German auto sales. Hans-Werner Sinn called a hard Brexit a medium-sized catastrophe for the German economy. We agree with him. The EU may have reasons not to reopen the withdrawal agreement. But it is politically a grave decision, because it will have costs.
If you look at Brexit from a narrow UK electoral point of view, we believe that the two winning strategies are those of a no-deal Brexit and outright revocation. We sense an overwhelming desire by the electorate to get this over and done with, one way or the other. This is why we think the position of the LibDems is electorally smart. We don’t think that the Labour Party and the SNP will support a withdrawal deal, except perhaps a small group of Labour MPs around Stephen Kinnock. If there are more than 10 hardline Tory MPs to reject it, the game is up. This means no-deal Brexit is still very much on the table.
The Benn legislation has not really changed this. We noted yesterday an interesting legal conspiracy by Remain lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who thinks he found a hole in the legislation. The Act compels the prime minister to seek a Brexit extension by October 19. But if the House of Commons were to pass the withdrawal agreement by then, the obligation to seek an extension would fall away. However, a previous act of parliament stipulates further pre-conditions for a Brexit agreement. If these are not met, the UK will leave the EU without a deal.
We don’t think that this will be the course of events, but Maugham’s legal analysis makes one thing clear: no legal act is without loopholes. The House of Commons would probably find a way to pass supplemental legislation to plug this particular gap or others that might arise. But we think the real issue is that the hand of the prime minister in this standoff is ultimately stronger. Maugham imagines a wider conspiracy as part of which Johnson plots together with his eurosceptic MPs to pass a reheated version of Theresa May’s withdrawal bill, but then frustrate further passage of the bill before the end of October.
We have no idea whether this or another one will be the preferred route to frustrate the Remainers’ anti-Brexit tactics. But we think there is more than one route to it.