Brexit has been a near-continuous facet of the news over the past 3 years. Now that Brexit is done, the negotiations are all about the withdrawal. The way the media has been reporting it does the whole process a disservice.
This article explains why I think the reporting is incorrect, and how to think about Brexit in a better way.
In 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum to leave the European Union. It was a sad moment for many Europhiles like myself. I still think the UK could have had a better approach to Europe, but it is what it is.
From the moment Mrs May’s government activated the Union’s Article 50, it was clear that the UK was going to leave. Since then the UK and the EU have negotiated the withdrawal treaty, and now are negotiating a trade deal. The media reports on this, for obvious reasons, in great detail.
(For the sake of this article I’m only referring to EU-wide media and UK media. Any news source in, or of, one single EU Member State is irrelevant in this discussion.)
The main thrust of the articles are always the same: The UK/EU is going to/has made the following un/reasonable demand and we/they will never accept that unless we/they also get some unrelated concession.
It’s uncanny how often I see this pattern. I never fail to be surprised because I always ask myself what on earth the reporter was expecting. Our collective intelligence is being insulted when the negotiation is reported on as if it were a political story.
So why is it?
I’ve written about Brexit before, when it was still being debated and discussed.
I’m not sure I’m being clear.
Politics is a large chunk of the news.
We hear some spokesman or ministers declare policy. We hear the matter in question being debated on talk shows and discussed between talking heads. We all – you and I – have some opinion on the matter and our opinion is shaped by these discussions. If it were not for the media, we would never know certain arguments.
It’s good that the media keeps us informed. This happens for every major issue like national transportation plans, central bank interest rates and, in recent years, Brexit. All of this is good because this is how politics works. We discover a party’s line on topics because they’re reported on. We know what kind of government we’ll get after an election because of this. In turn, we know what’s going to be to our liking, and what will be cause for concern.
The critical point is that politics is meant to be reported on, discussed and debated.
What has this to do with negotiations?
A negotiation is a completely different kettle of fish.
In any negotiation, both parties are trying to get what they want. In a perfect world, each party wants something different because this is the only way a fair deal can be made. In reality, what the parties want overlaps so some process of figuring out how to split the Gordian knot in front of them takes place.
This is negotiating.
For example I may want to buy carpet in a souk in Marrakesh but am only prepared to pay 10 Dirham for it, even though its is priced at 15 Dirham. I can offer 5 Dirham and the seller can choose to accept, or haggle further. He suggests 13 Dirham. Eventually we settle on a price of 7 Dirham.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
We’ve all had to negotiate with a recalcitrant child or an obstinate partner at some point or another.
Now the EU and the UK are doing the same thing. One side states the equivalent of 5 Dirham, and the other counters with 13 Dirham and a free scarf.
It’s par for the course.
Most of you are getting impatient with me. Why, you’re asking yourselves, is Antoine bothering to make this oh-so-obvious point?
Conflation of the two
The media reports on the negotiating process as if it were politics, not as if it were a negotiation.
They jump on the equivalent of “5 Dirham” and cry foul explaining the other party can’t work with that offer and that this makes the UK/EU look like fools. The media focuses on the process instead of the bigger picture.
This is dangerous because what should be discussed and debated are:
- The opening positions (“How much shall I offer for this carpet?”)
- Red lines to take (“I will not accept to pay more than 5 Dirham!”)
- The agreed on points (“I’ve accepted to pay 7 Dirham.”)
This is where the interesting debates lie because both the EU and the UK should understand whether there is public appetite for these things.
If they don’t do this – and they haven’t yet – then the end result will be presented to us as a fait accompli.
Don’t forget many EU national and regional assemblies have to vote on the treaty for it to take effect. If the negotiators don’t gauge the public mood, they risk the treaty being rejected at a later stage.
But the press isn’t asking these questions.
They’re reporting on each step of the process as if that is what matters.
What could happen
We can see that the EU wants to, amongst other things, police UK subsidies. It sounds like the EU wants to interfere in the internal workings of a now non-EU country which sounds unfair.
But that’s not what the EU wants to do.
This is the EU saying “13 Dirham.”
As in my carpet selling example, I could accept the first offer of 13 Dirham if I were happy with it. Maybe I’m being cheated, but if I’m happy with it, who cares?
This is what’s going on now. Both sides are making claims which may be absurd but which are the opening salvos in the trade deal negotiations. The interesting part is going to be the point at which they converge because that will be the fleshy meat upon the bones of this trade deal.
No one needs to take these starting points seriously, but we should see proper discussions of what’s being agreed because that is what will affect our daily lives.
The media focuses on the process rather than the content which means we’re getting a narrow view on what is important or not. Right now it seems as if the UK/EU are being un/fair depending on what or who you’re reading.
If you think this, I have some news for you.
They’re not being unfair, or even fair.
That’s how negotiations take place.
(Caveat #1: This in no way means we shouldn’t criticise how negotiations take place. We should be able to shake our heads and say, “I would have offered only 2 Dirham and here’s why”. In short, we should be able to discuss whether the negotiators are competent negotiators or not, as Raoul Ruparel outlines here.)
- Brexit deal demands go public; Tim Shipman; The Sunday Times of London; 2020-02-16
- No agreement, just a series of ‘parachutes’ to keep things moving between EU and UK after no-deal Brexit; Robert Watts; The Sunday Times; 2019-08-25
- Five Brexit blunders we must avoid this time; Raoul Ruparel; The Sunday Times of London; 2020-12-15
All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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