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Theresa May “in another galaxy” on Brexit

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, greets European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, as he arrives at 10 Downing Street on April 26, 2017 in London, England. Prime Minister May is to hold her first major talks with E.U leaders since calling a general election in a bid to strengthen her position in forthcoming Brexit negotiations. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

As Britain gears up to a general election which everyone assumes the Conservative Party will win by a landslide, the British media today is full of a story of a meeting between British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, which is said to have gone disastrously badly, and which supposedly led to Juncker reporting to German Chancellor Merkel that May is “in another galaxy”.

An exceptionally detailed account of the meeting has been published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.  The Guardian has provided a detailed account based on this article.

The British authorities are currently denying that the account of the meeting published by Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung is accurate, but there is no doubt it originates from within the EU Commission and the German government.  Almost certainly it was published on instructions from Merkel and Juncker, and undoubtedly it reflects their take on the meeting.  Note that as of the time of writing neither Merkel nor Juncker have denied its contents, or that Juncker said to Merkel that Theresa May is “in a different galaxy”.

Frankly it scarcely matters whether the account of the meeting is accurate or not.  The point about the article is that it shows that the mood towards Britain within the EU is hardening.  This was already apparent from comments made by Merkel four days ago to the Bundestag

A third state, and that’s what Britain will be, cannot and will not have at its disposal the same rights … as members of the European Union.  I must say this clearly here because I get the feeling that some people in Britain still have illusions – that would be wasted time.  We can only do an agreement on the future relationship with Britain when all questions about its exit have been cleared up satisfactorily.

(bold italics added)

Note Merkel’s reference to “some people in Britain [having] illusions” and compare that with Juncker reportedly calling Theresa May “on a different galaxy”.

Compare also Merkel’s comment to the Bundestag about the EU only being able to have “an agreement on the future relationship with Britain when all questions about the exit have been cleared up satisfactorily” with what Juncker is reported to have told Theresa May during his meeting with her

Juncker pointed out that the UK wanted a trade deal, but without agreement on money there would be no desire among the 27 member states to make that happen. The whole exit process would change, the commission president is said to have responded…..

It is also claimed that Juncker pulled out copies of Croatia’s accession treaty and the recently agreed Canadian free trade deal, which is more than 2,000 pages long, weighing 6kg (13lbs) in total, to point out the complexity of what is to come.

Quite clearly Juncker and Merkel are working from coordinated positions, and the fact that all 27 EU member states are reported to have agreed to the EU’s Brexit negotiating strategy within 4 minutes shows that it is Merkel’s and Juncker’s views which have prevailed, and that Britain has no allies or friends within the EU it can count on for help during the negotiations.

What the meeting between Juncker and Theresa May shows is something which in fact has been obvious for months: Theresa May and the British government have no Brexit strategy, and have not even begun to think about one, despite have delayed submitting Britain’s Article 50 notice until March supposedly in order to give themselves time to prepare one.

Indeed the British still do not seem to have any clear idea of what Brexit even means.  All the discussions which have taken place on the subject to date have simply amounted to arguments about competing wish-lists cobbling together ideas of the sort of things their advocates would ideally want a Brexit agreement to include.  No-one seems to be looking at whether any of these wish-lists is practical or achievable, or what any of them would mean in practice, or what the details involved in negotiating them would involve.

In the meantime, instead of working hard to come up with a coherent Brexit strategy, Theresa May has hidden behind slogans, such as the peculiarly empty one of “Brexit means Brexit” she hid behind for months.  To the extent she has articulated a conception of Brexit at all, it is because she has been forced to do so by the courts.

In recent weeks there has been some brave talk in Britain that this doesn’t really matter, because Britain should be willing to embrace a ‘clean break’ with the EU, which amounts to Britain being prepared to leave the EU entirely without any agreement at all if it cannot get the agreement it wants.

Perhaps that is indeed the optimal solution (though I don’t believe it), and may be – as Juncker appears to think – it is now the only realistic one.  However no-one in the British government is undertaking a study to try to see what it would mean for Britain’s society or economy if it happened, or to prepare a plan for it if that indeed is what is coming.

Whatever her many faults as a leader – and I have written about them extensively – Angela Merkel is a stickler for detail, and in this she is typical of the entire German establishment, both its economic and its political wings.  It will be this German establishment which will be in ultimate control of the EU’s side of the negotiations, and which will provide the muscle behind it.  Any British government that goes into a negotiation with Merkel – or with any conceivable successor to her as German Chancellor – unprepared and without a plan is going to be cut to pieces.  That however is precisely the outcome Britain is looking at, without anyone however having any idea what to do if it happens.

I have repeatedly written in The Duran that the common impression of Theresa May – that of a strong and decisive leader – is completely wrong.  On the contrary her conduct since becoming Prime Minister has been characterised by drift and indecision and by a dangerous lack of ideas, which she has hidden behind a wall of secrecy and clichés.

Possibly the single most revealing thing that happened during the meeting between Juncker and Theresa May was Theresa May’s attempt to get Juncker to collude in this by agreeing to hold the entire Brexit negotiation in secret.  Juncker’s incredulous reaction to this bizarre proposal speaks volumes.  More to the point, this proposal shows that Theresa May has not even taken the trouble to inform herself about the most basic facts of the negotiation she is about to enter into.  Had she done so she would have known her proposal was an impossible one.  Almost certainly that is because she is too frightened of the prospect of the negotiation to look at even the most basic facts about it.

The events of the last few weeks – ever since Theresa May called an election she repeatedly said she would not call, and the reason for calling which she has never explained clearly – the emptiness at the heart of her leadership has become increasingly apparent.

Her refusal to meet with ordinary voters or to take part in debates with other party leaders has attracted increasing criticism, and is starting to win for her from the media the unflattering nickname “Kim Jong May”.

On the one occasion when Theresa May has submitted herself to what in Britain passes for a heavyweight media interview – with that most courteous and gentle of interviewers, the BBC’s Andrew Marr – she again hid behind clichés and empty slogans, and came close to getting dangerously unstuck.

The fault however does not lie just with Theresa May.  Ever since the Brexit referendum the entire British political class – Conservative and Labour – has been at sea, with its chronic amateurism exposed increasingly to view, as it persists in playing the game of party electoral politics, which it is increasingly clear is all it knows.

I recently said that in Britain, as in the last days of the Habsburg empire, administration had replaced government.

That may have been too generous.  Increasingly, as they battle it out in an election the result of which everyone knows in advance, Britain’s leaders look more and more like the crew of the Titanic, busy rearranging the deck chairs even as the iceberg drifts into sight.

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