Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Brexit Blame Game Is Really a Clash of Cultures

Talks are made tougher by two contrasting styles separated by the English Channel.

With boozy briefings, shorts on hot days, a soccer shirt as a gift and as a little paperwork as possible, is it any wonder the British approach to Brexit talks raised eyebrows?

Rather than downplaying the gravity of the U.K.’s most complex foreign policy maneuver since World War II, these small details highlight the clash of political cultures that’s pervaded 44 years of British membership in the European Union.  

As leaders head to Brussels for a key EU summit, the first six months of two years of divorce negotiations have been as much about style as substance, formaility versus informality. The British blame the EU for being intransigent, obsessed by rules and lax over media leaks and security. The Europeans accuse the U.K. contingent for not negotiating honestly and paying lip-service to details.

“The British have never understood what it is to be in the EU,” said Andrew Duff, a former U.K. member of the European Parliament and now a visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre, a think tank advising on European integration. “They know it’s a club, but they’ve treated it like one of those awful clubs in London where you pay the membership fee and then behave as you please. That’s always poisoned the British approach.”

One of the diplomats close to the talks said there is still a feeling the sides are on two different planets even after five rounds of monthly talks in Brussels and discussions between leaders.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

It doesn’t mean that the U.K. and the EU will never get a deal to smooth Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc, but it does make things a lot more difficult. If they don’t understand the way each other works, the question is how can they see eye to eye on the myriad discussion points. They range from big issues like the U.K.’s bill for already existing commitments and the rights of citizens, down to the minutiae of food labeling.

The U.K. wanted a much more fluid approach to how the negotiations were set up: talks in London and Brussels when they were required, with different people as and when needed and with the option of discussions in other capitals too. The EU insisted on formal monthly rounds at the European Commission and a single lead negotiator.

The EU picked former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, 66, to lead its side. He is a typical European “protocolaire,” said Duff, a technocrat who does things by the book, exactly the type of operator that British politicians don’t get. Barnier can’t make any concessions or move away from his rigid mandate without it being signed off by the governments of 27 member states.

The U.K. government meanwhile has David Davis, 68, who has spent his political career rallying against exactly the type of inflexible -- some U.K. officials say humorless -- European bureaucrats that Barnier represents. 

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

When the two men stand alongside each other in news conferences at the end of each negotiating round, Barnier is precise, stern and good on detail. Davis is more jocular and, according to some of his entourage, often would rather not be there.

“It’s cultural because the EU is a rules-based system and it has a rules-based way to sort things out, it has to be like that,” said Richard Corbett, who was member of former EU President Herman Van Rompuy’s cabinet and is now a European lawmaker for the Labour Party. “In part it’s cultural, in part it’s procedural, and in part it’s political. And the combination of those three things is lethal.”

Arsenal Shirt

The divergent style of politics was evident when Brexit talks started in June. The EU published all its negotiating positions upfront. At first, the U.K. refused to set out its positions on anything to avoid showing its hand. U.K. negotiators were photographed turning up to their first session with barely a piece of paper between them. The EU delegation had piles.

Journalists were briefed in bars by British diplomats over beer while the EU called people into sterile conference rooms. One U.K. diplomat was advised not to show up for a meeting in his shorts on a hot summer day. Barnier is always impeccably turned out in made-to-measure suits.

The more relaxed attitude was summed up when Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, visited Barnier. He gave the Frenchman a shirt from London soccer club Arsenal with “Barnier” on the back. Barnier has never said he’s big fan of the sport, though frequently references his love of hill walking. He gave Corbyn a vintage poster of his native mountainous Savoy region.

Corbyn departs following talks with Barnier at the Berlaymont building in Brussels
Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

There are aspects of the way the EU conducts the negotiations that make the British think their counterparts are too laissez-faire.

The U.K. has seen that often things on the EU side don't stay under wraps for long. The contents of a private dinner conversation between May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Downing Street were leaked to the German press. Confidential EU documents and discussions in Brussels are frequently briefed to journalists.

There's also security during the talks. The U.K. bans its negotiating team from going to certain restaurants in Brussels and often asks them to eat in its own ambassador’s residence so that conversations about the negotiations aren’t overheard.

‘Swashbuckling’

Since Britain finally joined the EU in 1973 after successive vetoes by French President Charles de Gaulle, it’s been mostly an uneasy alliance between London and Brussels, the capital of what many pro-Brexit politicians call the European “superstate.” There have been regular tales of how successive leaders went against protocol.

At a summit in Maastricht in 1991 that paved the way for much closer integration, leaders weren’t allowed any other officials in the negotiating room. In a tale now part of EU folklore, Prime Minister John Major had a diplomat hide under the table and pass him notes. 

That diplomat, John Kerr, went on to co-author the Article 50 exit clause in the EU treaty that the U.K. became the first country to use to withdraw from the bloc following the Brexit referendum last year.

Corbett, the member of the European Parliament, gives another example of the British approach. At a late-night EU summit in Brussels in 2013 when governments couldn’t agree on the size of the seven-year EU budget, Van Rompuy held a series of bilateral meetings with each leader to try to get a breakthrough, he said.

It was supposed to be a one-one-one meeting, but Prime Minister David Cameron was the only leader who insisted on taking officials with him to listen to the details, according to Corbett.

“It was rather swashbuckling,” Corbett said. “Cameron wanted to sort it out as a chat over coffee.”

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