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  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
29 November 2016

Theresa May is making the same mistake that Syriza did

She is overestimating her leverage, and underestimating the EU's willingness to suffer economic damage. 

By Stephen Bush

Today’s big story? A set of handwritten notes, snapped by an enterprising photographer, as Julia Dockerill, chief of staff to Conservative MP Mark Field, walked out of 9 Downing Street. The note appears to reveal much of the government’s strategy for negotiating Britain’s Brexit deal.

Among the revelations: ministers are “loath” to do a transitional deal for fear that the Civil Service will try to hold on it indefinitely. Their preferred plan? “Canada plus”, a trade deal similar to the EU-Canada deal, but with more provided for services, or as the note says to “have our cake and eat it”, as far as the benefits of EU membership are concerned, without the perceived downsides of reduced sovereignty and free movement of people. But the same notes warn that the negotiating team is “very French”, and that France is keen to shake Britain down in the talks.  “‘Have cake and eat it’ — aide reveals Brexit tactic” is the Times splash.

Not only that, but the note suggests that the government has ruled out single market membership, though, as I’ve written before, that was already clear from Theresa May’s public pronouncements.

Although the government has said the notes “do not reflect the government’s position”, they represent what you might call the “maximal” position for Britain: all the benefits, none of the drawbacks on EU membership.  (Missing in action from the notes: whether we’ll still keep paying into the EU after we leave, a subject on which the government has kept notably quiet.)

The sentence that deserves more attention than it has thus far received from those notes: the line that the EU27 “don’t want instability in Europe” and are “fearful of us [the UK] as competitor.” As with much of the notes, these are things that ministers are saying privately, but, let’s be clear: the EU27 are not fearful of a post-Brexit UK as a competitor on the world stage. As Mario Draghi noted yesterday, they are well aware that a hard Brexit will hurt both sides, but it will be Britain who comes off worse – “Brexit will impose heavier toll on UK than Eurozone, Draghi warns” is the FT’s splash.

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What it all feels reminiscent of – and is worth recalling – is the run-up to the first collision between the then newly-installed Syriza government and the Eurozone. Syriza ministers wildly overestimated their leverage and underestimated the willingness of the EU’s leaders to suffer economic damage to maintain the political project. May’s ministers approach to Britain’s exit talks risk going the same way.


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