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15 February 2017

There’s a curious contradiction in Theresa May’s foreign policy

We can't even do self-interest right. 

By Stephen Bush

Some successful diplomacy rests on making people like you, some successful diplomacy rests on being so unbearable that after a while, people have to give you what you want. In the European Union, that latter approach worked well for Charles De Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher.

Both politicians had no compunction about using the institutions of the European Union to maximise their leverage, even when it meant discomforting their allies.

They won few friends, but both were admired by their fellow leaders for their understanding of how power worked.

The problem, in the case of the British centre-right, is what people remember is the obduracy, not the careful understanding of where to apply pressure. Although Theresa May is a very different politician to Margaret Thatcher in many ways, at a European level, her approach risks emulating the unsuccessful caricature – with disastrous results for her Brexit approach.

The latest example is the decision not to attend the summit to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome – the European Union’s founding document – as we’re leaving anyway, so why on earth would we want to gladhand anyone? The answer, of course, is it would be a good opportunity for May to make friends and build up goodwill with some well-chosen small talk.

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The strange thing is that the British government is willing to do things that don’t serve British interests in order to secure European goodwill. As I’ve written before, March 2017 is quite possibly the worst time possible to trigger Article 50. We would be much better off waiting to pull the trigger until German elections in September 2017. Instead, the best-case scenario is that Britain will waste seven months of negotiating time while elections take place in France and Germany. (Article 50 theoretically provides for 24, but in practice, due to the demands of ratifying the agreement, the deal will have to be resolved within 18 months.)

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In terms of the twin domestic demands on May – proving to Eurosceptic ultras in the Conservative backbenches that she is serious about leaving and not going into the 2020 election with Britain’s EU membership still unresolved – October 2019 is not a worse end point than March 2019. But the reason why the United Kingdom has hampered its talks from the start is to avoid complicating elections to the European Parliament, which are in May 2019.

That’s not the only way that Britain could be a worse neighbour to get a better deal. It is unclear whether Article 50 – which takes Britain out of the European Union – is necessarily linked with Article 127 – which takes Britain out of the single market. If the two are not linked, Britain could trigger Article 50, safe in the knowledge that leaving without a deal would mean falling into the single market , not the uncertainty of leaving on WTO terms or worse, which would cause severe economic damage to the United Kingdom.

But instead, we haven’t waited to find out whether that is the case. We don’t know whether if we dislike the deal on offer, we can unilaterally withdraw our Article 50 notification. These are  all things that allow Britain to say with a straight-face that we are getting out quickly so the European Union can focus on other things. But they don’t particularly help Britain get a better deal.

That’s the strange paradox of British diplomacy under May: the government is willing to irritate our EU neighbours by palling around with Donald Trump, threatening to turn ourselves into a tax haven, snubbing their party and telling their foreign ministers that they risk not “selling us Prosecco” if we don’t get a good deal. But we’re curiously unwilling to act as a bad neighbour in a way that advantages the United Kingdom or gets the best Brexit deal in any way.