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12 December 2017

Why is Guy Verhofstadt angry with David Davis? Because Britain has the Brexit strategy of a toddler

When talking about the negotiations, the government should remember: European politicians can speak and read English.

By Stephen Bush

Well, that went well: David Davis’ attempt to reassure Brexiteers that the agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union on legacy issues was not legally binding has led to the European Parliament, which ultimately can vote down any deal between the UK and the EU, to immediately seek legal protections over existing agreements. Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s chief negotiator, accused Davis of “damaging trust” in the process.

The British government’s problem is one of success: the success of English.

Slight digression: it’s only when we reach the age of four that our brains can understand that other perspectives than our own exist. This is why the under-fours are so bad at hiding – they think that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them, so they cover their faces or eyes. 

The British government is having a similar problem: both it and the pro-Brexit press have forgotten that although few people in Westminster can speak another European language, almost every politician in every major European capital can speak, or at least read, English.

By and large, a German politician can get away with slagging off the British in an interview with the tabloid Bild, while a French one can do the same in Les Echos. But everyone can read the Telegraph or the Sun online. And because British bluster in these outlets gets back to European politicians’ own electorates, that makes accommodating the British harder. (The same thing happened with Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as President of the European Commission. Angela Merkel had hoped to block it, but the domestic reaction in Germany to his monstering in the British tabloids forced her to back off.)

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The irony is that this is, in a sense, the last revenge of the British empire. When Denis Healey was overseeing the final stages of Britain’s retreat from empire, Aden’s penultimate governor, Richard Turnbull, told him that ultimately the British Empire would be remembered for just two things: the game of association football, and the expression “Fuck off”.

Turnbull could have added a third: the spread of English. Thanks to the British Empire, English is the lingua franca of much of the world, including its cultural and political superpower, the United States of America. And when Brexit is done and dusted, the last reminder of British membership of the European Union will also be English, which will continue to be commonly spoken in Brussels as long as Hollywood makes movies.

But the strength of English is also a great weakness to Theresa May. At the end of this week, when it’s time for the European Council to ratify the agreement between the United Kingdom and the Commission, the intemperate comments of her Brexit secretary mean she might find herself on the wrong side of the British Empire’s other legacy. And it’s not association football.