R E S P E C T – find out what it means to me. So sang the late, great Aretha Franklin: her best known hit, played endlessly in the days after her death last month. It’s a subject that’s been much on my mind. I started my last post with the lack of respect shown to Theresa May by EU leadership following her trip to Salzburg. This post looks at the same topic, but from the perspective this time of the other side of the Channel, viewed through the prism of personalities and perceptions. I hasten to add this is not for reasons of prurience – I’m not interested in muckraking – but because in any substantial negotiation these things matter, both at the point of setting up the discussions and as they progress.
In the Brussels corner, Michel Barnier. Hand-picked for the job by Jean-Claude Juncker, he both looks and sounds the part. Immaculately coiffed and suited, he is a veteran of French politics and a Brussels insider. After graduating from France’s oldest business school cum grande école, ESCP, he has enjoyed an unblemished political career and is married to the highly-regarded lawyer turned member of France’s great-and-good, Isabelle Altmeyer. In short, he is what the French term un homme sérieux, a phrase which needs no translation. It also carries the sense of a safe pair of hands. As the TV clips show, his Luxembourgeois boss can rely on his full support, especially after lunch. The one thing that marks him out from the younger generation of continental politicians is his halting command of English and you can see the relief when he reverts to French at the press conferences. But at least he makes the effort.
In the British corner, at least until recently, David Davis and Boris Johnson [we’ll come to him later]. Davis comes across as your classic English bloke. Any night of the week you can find a dozen like him in the saloon bar at my village local. He follows in the great British tradition of those who conceal a sharp intellect beneath a bluff exterior and a good line in throwaway remarks. In fact he enjoyed an impressive business career at Tate & Lyle and attended both London Business School and Harvard, and has achieved high ministerial office. There’s also his parallel career as an SAS reservist. Full credit to a guy who spent his early life on a Tooting council estate. But his weak spot is a liking for playing to the gallery. The BBC’s Dead Ringers programme satirised him mercilessly as the Prime Minister’s “Brexit Bulldog”, lurching from one hapless misadventure to another. Alas, it was all too credible. At his rare Brussels press conferences he appeared dishevelled and disorientated, like the father of the groom who’d missed the last flight to his son’s stag do in Prague and arrived in Belgium by accident. The contrast with the polish of Barnier could not have been greater.
Davis was already known to the continental public when his appointment as Secretary of State was announced. I discovered this in a conversation over the garden fence with my French neighbour, resident in the UK for a good many years. It turned out that Davis’s electoral stunt when he was vying with Cameron for the Tory leadership in 2005 had been widely covered in the European press. You may recall that he had a number of Barbara Windsor lookalikes wandering round the party conference in tight T shirts bearing the slogan “It’s DD for me”. Might have seemed like a jolly wheeze over a well-lubricated lunch with a few cronies, but in the cold light of day it turned a credible bid into Carry on Campaigning. “You British have entrusted this negotiation to a total pillock,” said my neighbour, demonstrating his mastery of Anglo-Saxon vernacular. “And as for Boris Johnson as your Foreign Secretary… don’t get me started. Do you honestly think anyone is going to take these clowns seriously?”
It seemed rather pointless to rehearse at that point Johnson’s academic achievements as a King’s Scholar at Eton, an open scholar to Balliol, his reputation and fluency as a journalist, his two terms as Mayor of London having ousted Ken Livingstone, etc, etc. Nor worth referring to his bumbling English eccentric persona as the product of careful calculation. In the continental mind he was known for the shambolic appearance, his gadfly attacks on the EU while a Brussels correspondent, and a string of well-publicised gaffes. And Theresa May had made him in effect the UK’s diplomat in chief? It was incomprehensible.
From a purely domestic point of view, it’s not hard to see why Davis and Johnson were elevated to their respective Cabinet positions. They’d been prominent in leading the Brexit charge. Having secured what they wanted, they could deal with the consequences. As a career politician herself, May also probably calculated that it was better to have two potential ringmasters of the awkward squad inside the tent p*ssing out, rather than vice versa. But from a non-UK perspective, this decision could be interpreted very differently. The UK government had more or less consigned foreign affairs to the margins, to men who had reiterated on numerous occasions that leaving the EU was going to be a breeze, exuding an almost imperial swagger. Nothing much to see here, folks. Move along now.
Well, we’ll see about that, mon ami.
On this side of the Channel we’re living with those consequences. Will Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt fare any better? It’s too early to tell. The other side has made it clear that the Chequers plan as presented by May won’t be accepted. The EU is not going to yield on the sacred totem of the four freedoms, though they might, just might, go for a fudge on the Irish border, with Varadkar “encouraged” to toe the line. So there will be compromises and trade-offs. But beyond a certain point any agreement will be so unrecognisable that it stands no chance of getting Parliamentary assent – and the mood music from the Labour Party conference is that forcing a general election takes precedence over the national interest. I’m still of the view that our best chance is to go for the one option that can’t be subject to a Brussels veto, that is the Norway solution of EEA/EFTA membership, as a staging post en route to the Canada plus free trade deal. It’s fast approaching five minutes to midnight, and we need to buy more time.
But at least Raab and Hunt look and sound like they mean business. Bon courage!