Britain Still Thinks It Can Bluff Its Way to a Better Deal

The EU is not impressed.

European Union flags
Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union outside the Berlaymont in Brussels, January 29, 2016 (European Commission)

What do you call doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?


I’ve also called it the Tsipras approach to negotiating with the EU, after the Greek prime minister who thought he could get his way by threatening to blow himself up.

It didn’t work for Alexis Tsipras, and it hasn’t worked for the United Kingdom. Despite threats to walk away without a deal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year agreed to essentially the exit agreement the EU had proposed all along.

Now his government is unhappy with the agreement it made and, once again, threatening to walk away.

Client state

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab argues a “moment of reckoning” is approaching.

Brexit negotiator David Frost says it is time for the EU to wise up and recognize that the United Kingdom will not become a “client state”. The EU, he complains, has not “learned not to take our word seriously.”

Johnson warned in a statement on Monday that if there isn’t a deal by the next European Council on October 15, “then I do not see that there will be a free-trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”

Pulling out

The Financial Times reports that Johnson is planning legislation that would undermine the agreement made on Northern Ireland last year, which keeps the province in a customs union with the EU but formally part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory.

Brexiteers argue two stipulations in the deal are incompatible with reclaimed sovereignty:

  1. The government needs to notify Brussels of state aid that might affect businesses in the region.
  2. Companies must complete export declarations when they ship goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

From the EU’s perspective, the rules are needed to preserve a “level playing field” and avoid the needs for customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Frost argues Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, “blinked” when she accepted the EU’s terms.

But his government doesn’t have an alternative either. It doesn’t want a customs union with the EU for the whole of the UK, which would solve the Northern Ireland problem but permanently tie the kingdom to the EU’s rules and regulations. Nor does it want to see a hard border in Ulster, where the absence of one has helped keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants for twenty years.

This isn’t working

Threatening to renege on an agreement that isn’t even a year old doesn’t make the EU more likely to compromise.

After three and a half years of Brexit talks, the UK still thinks it can bluff its way into a better deal. It doesn’t understand why the rest of Europe is so obsessed with treaties and laws. (As if 27 countries with 450 million people can be governed with British-style improvisation.) It hasn’t accepted that for the rest of the EU, the interests of Ireland, which remains a member state, now prevail.

Nor has Britain come to terms with its own loss of status. The EU has almost seven times the population, and six-and-a-half times the economic output, of the UK. Defaulting to WTO trade rules would hurt Britain far more than the EU.

If Britain thinks it can convince the EU to come around at the last minute by threatening to shoot itself in the foot, it is mistaken.

Just ask Alexis Tsipras.