The UK’s Golden Opportunity: The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square

The May-Barnier deal is in deep trouble. After two years of negotiations, and signed up by 27 member states, it has been  vetoed twice by the largest and fourth largest defeat in parliamentary history. Prime Minister May has returned to Brussels, and been told  that the exit day can be extended to May if parliament votes in favour; if not the new exit day is April 12.

The London press.

So much for May setting the UK’s agenda.  The London-based press has been having a field day. The EU is sorting out May’s mess for her, headlines shriek. Macron is taking Brexit in hand. Merkel is trying to help. May gets warmed up pizza as the EU 27 leaders scoff foie gras.

It helps sales, no doubt. But now and again there are some discordant notes. The façade of 27 member states “speaking with one voice” registers some off notes. The final date of Brexit was to be May 7, until Belgium’s Henri Michel pointed out that May 8 was Victory in Europe Day in France and the UK. Celebrations greeting Brexit would not look good. No more than the UK participating in European parliament elections, and returning 75 Brexit party MEPs.

In truth, May and Barnier both own this 585 page lawyers delight of a Withdrawal Agreement(as it is called in the UK) and Withdrawal Treaty as it is called in Brussels. It was concocted by May and Barnier, with their teams. The way it was reported in the press was Mrs May doing uneven battle against a suave, hand-kissing Frenchman, Michel Barnier. The subtext ran: Q. who do you expect to win out of that pair?  The geography studies graduate or the business studies graduate? A. Business studies Barnier.

Correction: Neither. Neither have proven up to the challenge. No surprise, there.

Brexit is not a technical exercise.

The task far surpassed either of them. May went into the negotiations as a Remainer. She is implementing, she thinks, the vote of June 23, 2016.  Her objectives are mixed: keep the Tory party from shattering; limit the damage to the UK; keep on good terms with “Brussels”; get the nod from Merkel; keep all the EU  acquis(80,000 plus pages of regulation, directives, laws, edicts..);  remain as good as in the customs union minus some of its good bits.

Barnier’s mandate was to keep unity among the EU 27. To do that, the Commission has to lead. Its officials are appointed. It is used to negotiate. Law is its tool. It has to demonstrate that Brexit is a bad idea to discourage others. That means first talking withdrawal: ECJ supremacy for the duration; unlimited duration via the Irish backstop; citizen’s rights to endure for about 90 years; the bill, plus more in the pipeline; 585 pages of legal text, to hobble the UK in future trade negotiations; the Treaty as international legal commitment; the accompanying text as an expression of good faith. We have the UK where we want it, says Sabine Weyand, Barnier’s factotum.

Weyand did a year study at  Cambridge; went on to the College de Bruges; and wrote a PhD on EU transport policy. She acquired a lot of experience in trade negotiations, before her job over Brexit. Her counterpart is Olly Robbins, a keen EU federalist, civil service high flyer; appointed by May to negotiate directly with Weyand, sidelining Brexiteer ministers fobbed off with Potemkin village jobs.

For all their technical exertise, things have not turned out as expected. The assumptions on both sides were that bureaucrats negotiated and parliaments rubber-stamped.  In fact, there is no “both sides”: for decades now, the UK senior civil service has logged onto Brussels circuits. It is a major part of “Brussels”. Its members know the arcane details. They know their way around the EU’s byzantine ways. They realise that there is a big difference between the technical details, and the public presentation. The technical details all travel in the direction of “more Europe”; the public presentation speaks in national-speak—the language of “the people”.

As soon as the EU 27 signed off the Withdrawal treaty (in 45 minutes), the difficulties began. The difficulties had everything to do with nation-speak-outside the ken of Weyand, Robbins, May and Barnier.

Assumptions all askew.

The assumption of the negotiators was that UK voters would accept the language in the Withdrawal Agreement indicating that the accepted status of the UK was a vassal state, perhaps indefinitely. Now it would be a stretch to argue that all 650 MPs in Westminster were outstanding patriots,  who bristled in their every fiber at the Treaty’s wording.  What can be said is that as more and more real powers accrued to Brussels, MPs had become used to grandstanding on anything that crossed their collective minds.

They have not been used to taking serious decisions for some time. The one thing that they definitely do understand as vote maximisers is that 70% of UK constituencies voted Leave in June 2016.

Now the worst possible experience for an Emperor is to be caught naked. Fig leaves only cover so much flesh. It takes no more than a kid  to blurt out that ‘the Charlie’s naked” for the veil to fall from the crowd’s eyes. That is what the Withdrawal Treaty has done. It has shown that for 43 years the UK senior civil service has considered the UK as a province, better as four provinces in a uniting Europe, and that that assumption has been shared by all the Great and the Good in Brussels.

So here is another assumption that has turned out to be false. The assumption on both sides was that the 1972 ECA Section 1 definition of EU law overriding UK law-expressed in vassal status in the WA- had long since become accepted by UK voters. It wasn’t.

There should have been no surprise: following the mad cow disease of the early 1990s, and the contemporaneous brutal recession imposed to keep the UK in the exchange rate mechanism, the EU’s popularity plummeted, never to recover.  Voting turnout to EU elections kept falling; large swathes of the poorest UK voters dropped out of voting in national elections. Then came the referendum of June 23, 2016, and they voted in their droves. They voted to Leave.

They voted because EU membership did nothing for them. A Berthelsmann study from 2014 on twenty years of the EU’s internal market showed that German per capita income grew by 2% per annum over the period because of the internal market; the figure for the UK was 0.1% per annum. In other words, the Brussels-Whitehall flagship internal market programme did diddley-squat for millions of UK voters. Those same voters also observed mass unemployment in southern Europe; the rape of Greece; the growing pretensions of  the project. They did not like what they saw. In particular, they did not appreciate that their legislators were also the collective executive of the EU, whom they could not sanction at election time.

The UK is special, and so are others.

Now the UK is special. It has a Whig tradition of history. The tradition holds that the UK is a blessed plot. Freedom’s seeds were sown in Magna Carta; over time, voters acquired the right to sanction their legislators; no king was above the law;  the  monarch’s power to tax, imprison and impose martial law were restricted; the Glorious Revolution of 1689 laid the basis for the constitutional monarchy, confirmed the supremacy of the Crown in parliament, entrenched habeas corpus, freedom of speech, and the rule of law; freedom’s seeds blossomed in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution; in the UK,  the nineteenth and twentieth century extended the suffrage. World War II was fought in the name of democracy, the rights of peoples to self-determination and of human rights.It was also fought in the name of the British Empire.

In the post-war years, UK leaders repeatedly urged close co-operation between the states and peoples of Europe. Eighty per cent of UK voters regularly recorded their support for co-operation. But they and their leaders balked at supranationalism. Supra-nationalism is a direct challenge to the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy; it infringes the ancient right that voters may sanction their own legislators; by espousing the project in 1972, the UK signed up to an imperial project, which considered nationalism and national states as the cause for Europe’s wars in the twentieth century. By contrast, the British voters tended to remember their coming to the rescue of Europe in two great wars, at great human and material cost.

The UK is not alone in being special. Germany too is special. It is first and foremost a culture, which has produced many of the glories of European civilization: Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. The list is endless. But its passage to statehood in 1871, its unification, and the two wars which it waged to dominate Europe, have informed every inch of Germany’s history since 1945: the determination of its constituent assembly to entrench the rule of law, a constitutional democracy, the division of powers, and a negotiated and inclusive economic policy aiming at stability and long-term sustainability.

France too is special. After 1945, how to deal with Germany was its prime external challenge; how to modernize was its prime domestic objective. The two have never lived easily together. The Euro was divised to reduce the powers of the Bundesbank, but its operation has made France  dance to Germany’s tune. The trouble is that French political culture is not German. It is “European” but in  a French way.  Ultimately, a French Europe is imagined as France writ large, just as a German Europe is imagined as a  Germany writ large.

The UK ain’t a province, whatever Whitehall thinks.

It isn’t and they aren’t. Since 1990, the UK’s population has gone along with the EU project, but with growing reluctance. Prime Minister Brown famously signed the Lisbon treaty, the de facto constitution of the EU, with his back turned to the cameras, to signal his displeasure. But he signed the document, and the Treaty became UK law. The implication is spelt out in the Withdrawal treaty: the UK is treated as a province. Its people do not see themselves as a province.

What’s wrong with being a province? Britain’s progressives ask. That is what the UK signed up for, and we enthusiastically endorse.

What is wrong is simple: the great unwashed British public does not see itself as a province, or four provinces of a USE.

May is so far removed from the people of the UK that she imagined, during the process of negotiation, that parliamentarians would sign the Treaty along the dotted line. As President Macron has acerbically remarked, we have spent two years negotiating this Treaty. Oui, Monsieur, but what made you think the UK public through their parliamentarians would accept it? The answer is: May made him think so, along with many others European leaders, all of whom flocked to say that the Withdrawal Treaty is the best possible treaty for all concerned.

No, it bloody ain’t, say millions upon millions of British voters.  Voices from Germany are beginning to pipe up,too, and say that this whole negotiation has been catastrophic. Brussels has mismanaged the whole process, the argument is. Rather than taking the vote of June 23 2016 as a major signal that all is not right in the project,  its denizens in Whitehall-Brussels have blamed the “Brits”, for swallowing all the “lies”-Macron’s words-that they were spun, and that, by implication, they were too dumb to reject. It is not the project that is in the wrong, but the “populists” in the UK and around Europe who are to blame.

Then comes the thought: my God, do we really want the UK in the EU? If the UK participated in the European Parliament elections, the thought is, the UK would be in the avant garde of delegates seeking to screw the project from within. Better get them out while we can.

Brexit is VERY bad news for the EU.

The trouble is that the UK leaving the EU is the equivalent of 20 member states. The UK is the world’s global financial centre, a nuclear weapons power, a member of the UN Security Council, the source of the global language and  global legal system, the world’s fifth economy, a larger manufacturer than France, the world’s No 2 innovator, with a significant military clout.

Given this, and the project’s own deficiencies, one may have thought that a little bit of creative thinking might have been called for. But creative thinking was and is there none. Its lack is expressed in every page of the 585 page Treaty. The verdict is that the  EU/UK- the composite merger resulting from 43 years of bureaucratic co-habitation- put two bureaucrats in charge. May, the charmless Prime Minister,  and Barnier,  the epitome of French condescension.

Who’s going to take the biggest hit, or benefit most from Brexit? EU enthusiasts think that without the UK, the “ever closer” agenda can move ahead unimpeded.

I have news for these people. Official UK has been more supranational than the Pope. Official UK (Lord Kerr, for example) is gung ho for a USE. So is the House of Lords. So are 70% of MPs-as long as the disguise is effective. Trouble is the disguise has been ripped aside: by Brexit; by mass unemployment in southern Europe; by Germany lecturing the Poles about human rights, while ignoring Polish concerns about the Nordstream pipeline; by German, Austrian, Finnish, Dutch voters who do NOT want a Transferunion; by a Germany that is militantly pacificist, i.e. in effect pro-Russian.

Brexit is a disaster for the EU. Without the UK, the difficulty of holding the EU together will become much more complicated. France is not for a social market economy as German citizens imagine it; Poles, with their history, volunteer with enthusiasm to join their militia; Germans do not. The simple truth is that the closer the project gets to achieving its aim of a USE, the higher the stakes become, the more politicised is the EU space, and the more difficult it is to reach even modest agreement. Under these conditions, it cannot be surprising that the deep consent needed to govern the continent as an empire is dwindling.

The UK’s cards.

The UK, were May’s successor to realise, holds a battery of cards. Its chosen formula-the formula of its people not of the supranationalists who have claimed to govern on their behalf for decades- is that the regime for Europe must be tailored to its reality. Its reality is diversity: in languages, in tax systems, in economic structures and much more besides. Europeans have to co-operate together, but they have to learn how to do it. Seeking to coerce them is foolish-in fact it is what Jean Monnet, the founding architect of the EU project, warned against. Brussels/Whitehall has forgotten this elementary lesson.

Outside of the EU, the UK has a once in a century chance to prosper. Of course it could screw things up.  Electing communists and Stalin-worshippers to run the country would be a good way to ensure failure.

But there are a whole  lot of good things lining up. The UK will get its fisheries back: that is great news for all of the fishing communities around the very long shores of the British isles.  Tariffs on 85% of goods should be lowered to zero. State aid, well managed, could be directed to promoting British based corporations. The monies spent on the EU could be directed to  UK recipients.

The recipe for success will be: highly competitive markets; open to the world; selective interventions; a streamlined welfare state that emphasises personal reponsibility for health; an updated constitutional arrangement; learning from Finland, Singapore, Korea and China for secondary education; revival of the UK’s military capability, starting on Task No 1: defence of the waters around our islands.

What a fantastic opportunity for a revived Conservative party, which ditched: identity politics; gender politics; pc baloney; guilt trips about its imperial past.

The UK has an opportunity to get real, in the hope that eventually the nutters on the continent who have steered the EU to its present impasse will be politically defenestrated, and we can once again talk sense about Europe’s future regime. It is also an opportunity to get rid of the nutters who continue to try to tell free born Brits what they can think, say, write and do.

May’s opportunity.

Now if May put herself at the head of this project for national renewal, she could find a place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square as the hero of Leavers.

Or as the hero of Remainers, and still on the plinth.  She could revoke Article 50, and stay in the EU, but alter the wording of 1972 ECA Section 2.1. 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4-as this blog has advocated now for the last six years.

The new wording would use the language of the German Constitutional Court to affirm that the EU is no more than an alliance of sovereign states. This is now the only way left to stay in, and get back control.

Don’t hold your breath, though.Imagination is not something she indulges in. She’s like First War generals, dreaming of one final Big Push. Coming back for more, again and again and again.

Having ditched so many of her promises-the 108 references in the Commons that the UK is leaving on March 29 come to mind-we should all be prepared for her to say that she is now converted to hold a second referendum. We can guess her preferred wording: My deal or Remain? In fact, the only possible language is Leave or Remain?

Were that the wording, then we should contemplate the following scenario: the great British unwashed enjoyed giving the existing supranationalist liberal Establishment in Westminster and Whitehall one heart felt boot up its collective rear. And now, to their unbelief, the Establishment is preparing to bend over a second time. What an unexpected bonus!

A second referendum can either be a fudge (My deal/Remain) or a strait question. If its a fudge, we are in uncharted waters. If its a strait question, Leave will win, Big Time, and May would be  the Prime Minister who succeeded beyond all expectations, despite her deficiencies. The fourth plinth would be for her.



About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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