Theresa May has run out of options before Brexit negotiations have even started
Theresa May - credit: PA
It’s never a good look to leave voters debating whether you are nasty or just incompetent. Yet here we are.
In truth, aside from those still drunk on the referendum itself, carried along by talk of sovereignty and seizing control and the pledges made by what seems to have been the most charismatic bus in history, most people anticipated that things would get nasty as the Brexit negotiations got underway. It’s just that few would have expected them to get quite so nasty, quite so soon.
Theresa May’s letter – grandly delivered to European Council president Donald Tusk by the most inexperienced postman in the world – was meant to be a positive start, after all. Downing Street will have spent days sweating over it. Going through it line by line, like a teenager constructing a tortured love letter, to make sure every component part spoke towards the purpose of the whole. It was meant to set up a productive start to a lengthy and complicated process.
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And yet here we are, 24 hours on, with headlines accusing the Prime Minister of attempting to blackmail the UK’s European partners by linking the success of trade deals with future security and anti-terrorism cooperation.
Number Ten has already started backpedalling – sending out David Davis and Amber Rudd to spin that the letter was simply a statement of fact – with Davis telling Radio 4 “What the prime minister was saying was that if we have no deal, and we want a deal, it’s bad for both of us”. It was badly written, not threatening, they seemed to claim. Yet the lines are pretty clear.
The letter says “We want to make sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and is capable of projecting its values, leading in the world, and defending itself from security threats … We therefore believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union.”
It then adds: “If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement, the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”
Give us a trade deal or we will not cooperate on terrorism. It looked nasty. Even sympathetic tabloids took the same reading from it, with the Sun splashing “YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIVES: Trade with us and we’ll help fight terror”. Your money or your lives; it seemed an extraordinarily ill-judged front page to run a week after a terror attack took four lives outside the home of UK democracy.
Certainly European leaders were in no doubt what May was saying, with the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt telling ITV: “What I think is not possible is to say to the European Union ‘well look we will only co-operate on security if you give us a good trade deal or a good economic package’, that is not done.
“The security of the citizens is so important, the fight against terrorism is so crucial, that you cannot negotiate with something else.”
And so things have got very grubby indeed, even if it’s a bit unfair to call the PM’s move blackmail. A more accurate description would be to call it an invitation to engage in a protection racket.
Of course some would argue the PM is just engaging in normal diplomacy, even if she is going about it without anything even resembling subtlety. If international relations is a game of self-interest then it makes perfect sense for the PM to use any means at her disposal to exert the UK’s, at the expense of its rivals.
There’s a view in political theory that all orders contain an implicit threat – that any ‘do this’ contains an unspoken ‘or else’. Whether the order is to pay your protection money, to fight in a war, or do your homework, there is always a price to pay for disobedience.
The mafia operator visiting a shop keeper to extract a payment knows this, and so does the state when it asks you to pay tax. Do it or face the consequence.
The problem, for May, is when the person being ordered, blackmailed, threated or otherwise cajoled doesn’t believe you would carry through on the ‘or else’.
And it is here that the PM looks weak. The UK relies on cooperation with European partners to protect itself domestically. European leaders know this, so do the security services, and so does Theresa May. In threatening to pull out of these agreements, developed with the aim of mutual protection, she looks desperate – like a Prime Minister that has run out of options. And more problematically, she looks like she has run out of options before negotiations have even started.
Looking nasty is one thing, but in the world of international diplomacy, looking incompetent is probably worse.