Notes from a crisis: the summer edition

PoliticsatSurrey, Simon Usherwood |

When I teach about negotiation, I sometimes get students to think about negotiators as represented in films. Pretty much invariably, that means a grizzled pro, who doesn’t play by the rules and takes a chance to make a connection where no-one else could. Usually involving some explosions.

Boringly, this isn’t how negotiators actually work. Sorry.

It’s rather the same with the notion of a crisis. Our cultural representations of crises are the crunch-points, where the fate of the world hangs by a thread and a hero swings in to save the day. Usually involving some explosions.

Again, not how it really goes, hence the “some events and dialogue have been changed for dramatic purposes” line.

A big part of any crisis is standing around, wondering a) what’s going on, and b) what to do next.

Whether it’s bobbing around the Cuban exclusion zone for any potential Soviet ship, or being unable to get into the reactor building to find out what’s actually happened, there’s a whole bunch of umming and ahhing.

And so too in the world of Brexit.

Indeed, at the very utterance by Donald Tusk in April of the hope that time should not be wasted, you rather knew that this is exactly what would happen.

Since then, both sides have taken time to, well, to take time. The UK has indulged itself with a Tory leadership contest on the back of an unsettling European election campaign, while the EU has let its hair down with the usual fun and games of allocating top jobs (my thoughts on that here).

If you like this is a larger version of Tusk sending everyone off for a nap on Sunday night: at some point, you have to have some rest if you’re to unblock matters.

But it’s also different, and problematically so.

A lot of people have worked an awful lot on Brexit over the last years, and especially in the UK since last November, when the Withdrawal Agreement was signed off for ratification. Since then, there has been a huge effort put into securing British ratification and into exploring the options.

In the simplest of terms, the UK has a limited set of choices, and has had since November. It can only either leave the EU with this Agreement; leave without any agreement; or not leave at all. Being blocked in Parliament, the government either has to change the framing (via a new leader); change the arithmetic (via a general election); or change the political landscape (via a referendum). All with a splash of extensions to Article 50 to give a bit more time to do some or all of these things.

By contrast, the European Council had much greater flexibility of selecting names to roles and fall-back mechanisms should a general package deal not be possible. Plus, it’s a much more bounded problem: leadership matters, but not nearly to the extent it might in a national context.

So the coming summer pause isn’t going to be a matter of re-charging the batteries on knackered politicians and civil servants: it’s going to be a continuation of the UK’s hard struggle to make a choice.

As sometimes happens in crises, there aren’t any ‘good’ options: all of the choices laid out here come with some big costs. Problematically, those costs affect the very people making the choices: economic, political, reputational. Thought of this way, it’s why we’ve not really moved on since November: everyone wants to avoid the costs, rather than solve the problem.

So it’s going to be a wasted summer then?

Possibly, dependent upon the big question of whether it’s more important that this is done, or that it is done well.

The structure of Article 50 still means that the default outcome on 31 October is a no-deal exit: the economics are pretty horrible, as is the trashing of UK-EU relations, but it’d be done. Ride out the storm, blame the other lot, then move on, change the narrative.

If those costs are too high, then you have to go for something more involved, ranging from selling cosmetic changes to the Agreement to calling a general election or referendum.

However, even in these cases there will be an underlying problem that we still lack a rationale for all this. We continue to fail in the task of agreeing why we should leave (or remain, for that matter).

And without that rationale, we’re going to find that however this crisis plays out, we won’t have addressed the causes of our discontent and we’ll be faced with another crisis, with its moments of panic and hours of boredom.

So go and make the most of your summer.