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Bewilderment is the New Comprehension: A Guide to British EU Negotiations

August 20, 2017


I’m totally at a loss regarding Brexit. Completely baffled on a regular basis. I don’t know where I am or who is who anymore. “Who’s that fella? What does that abbreviation mean? What’s Schengen again?” Every day brings more news that I just can’t keep up with, and I start to realise the depth of my ignorance on the matter.  It’s as if the pace of the negotiations are going quicker than the neural synapses in my brain, and I thought I was good at keeping abreast of current affairs and the ever-changing landscape in which we’re forced to live. So if I’m a bit perplexed – me – a self-declared professional observer of the state of things – then what chance do any of us have? 


Yes, it’s complicated. If you can cope with being bemused also I’ll come back to it later. 

However it’s obviously not just me who’s been left behind. Take the government, for example. They seem to have only just cottoned to the fact that we’re leaving the EU and that they’d better get their arses into gear, because they seem to spend a lot of time staring at their elbows. It’s as if they’re still scratching their heads over the fact that the Leave side won the vote back when things didn’t seem so bewildering, and it’s only just filtered through to their heads. But then there’s a lot of stuff clogging up the Tory brain at the moment, such as continued cuts to vital services, NHS privatisation, and what the hell to do about the useless, hapless, Theresa May. 

So this isn’t yet another piece about why Brexit had to happen, about the nasty EU, little Englanders, or Boris’s red bus. We’ve heard enough about that. Instead I offer a prognostication: confusion will reign for a long time. 


I know, hardly searing in its analysis, is it? But let’s look at some facts. The Tories are divided on Europe. To a lesser extent the same is true of Labour, but they’re not having to negotiate, so let’s stick to the Tories. When May said “Brexit means Brexit” she set the tone for whole appalling shebang, namely from that moment on no one had a clue what would happen next, and as various ministers such as David Davis and his team (with Liam Fox - or whatever his current name is – chirping from the sidelines) and others all sat around the table, it was obvious none of them had a clue either. Hard or soft Brexit? Membership of the customs union? What about Schengen? What about the divorce bill? What divorce bill? Oh, that divorce bill. The divorce bill itself has become the Tory equivalent of Donald Trump’s Mexican wall.  And in the meantime? No one still has a clue what’s going on. (Oh, how we need Kier Starmer’s nous now.) But the EU has made it clear that until the bill is settled then nothing much can happen; so when you hear Boris Johnson say Britain will not be paying a £60bn divorce bill, you know exactly that in a year or two’s time Britain will be paying a £60bn divorce bill. But then Boris knows all about divorces, doesn’t he?



So today’s news is about the customs union, and the plan for the Irish border. Next week’s news will be about different aspects of the same things as the government is forced to amend comments it made a week earlier (today), because by then something will have occurred to them that currently evades their collective synapses. And so it continues. The week after’s news will be about the Single Market, or the European Economic Area, or about the Free Trade Agreement (unilateral or bilateral?), CAP ring-fenced payments, free movement of goods and people, structural funding, EU directives...and so on and so on...until 2019 when all this is done and dusted. And you take a look at who we have negotiating all this perilously complex stuff and you have to shake your head. It’s zero steps forward and about four steps back. Perhaps in some alternative universe there is a Tory team with enough knowledge, wisdom and foresight to get the UK through this process, but then in the same multiverse there’s also a dimension where Brexit didn’t happen. And Theresa May still thinks Brexit means Brexit. Words fail me…

Well, I think the Tories will hope that the general gist of the negotiations become too complex to follow, a sort of political quantum physics, where only a small group of people can hazard a guess at what is actually happening at any one time, and where instead of photons being a wave and a particle at the same time, UK negotiators will be experts and yet totally ignorant during the same thought. Only be realising how much they can grasp can they finally figure out they know absolutely nothing.

And to add to this general miasma of despair is the news that a very different set of negotiations are currently taking place: apparently Brexit: the Movie could well be going into production in the next few months, assuming these filmmaking talks get that far. Can you imagine it? Just think, a film about this stuff, with Nigel Farage portrayed heroically onscreen in his tweeds as he tells Junckers where to go and lots of union-flagged idiots in bowler hats cheer and applaud. Oh hell, I’m going to be sick. I can only hope that if it does get made a third-rate actor plays him. After all, he is a third-rate politician. (His comment last week, delivered from a comfy hotel in the US about a possible return to UK frontline politics because he is needed, were hilarious. He was, at best, a fringe player, and a deluded one at that.)  And this reminds me; there is even a Brexit: the Opera doing the rounds (coming to a venue in Glasgow soon. A friend appeared in the London run). If you can’t understand it, then satirise it. 

Nevertheless, this is all very confusing.  Like I said at the start, the whole thing is one befuddled mess. We’re so unprepared we can’t even agree on what we can disagree on. It doesn’t fill me with hope. And I dare say the markets will register highly on the Brexit confusion scale (let’s call it the Boris Scale). So as things stand, today, with the news being what it is, I would wager the UK in general is about 7 on the Boris Scale. Last week it was 6. This is what the government is relying on – a set of negotiations so astonishingly complicated that people will check their Boris Scale and just give up trying to follow events and wave a hand as if to say ‘Oh, I’ll leave it to the government.’  Then they’ll turn over and go back to sleep, only to have nightmares about big red buses emblazoned with ‘facts’. (Note to self: copyright the Boris Scale as a phone app.)

But come the final round of talks in a year and a bit, I can’t imagine what number the Boris Scale will show, other that the scale will have been smashed to bits, taking out whole rows of buildings, and everyone will be running around naked and screaming. And that includes May, Boris and Gove, but I just have to try and not think about that. But then I’m only an observer, as we all are. We’re not paid to understand and work our way through the process. But by heck, I reckon I could do a better job than the current shower. It puts my present confusion into blissful perspective.


Max Webster is the editor of Political Provocateur













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