Brussels lacks the imagination of a Rowan Atkinson show.
Baldrick, of Blackadder fame, a member of Team Brexit? Who knew? For the uninitiated, Blackadder is a British comedy series, starring Rowan Atkinson (of Mr. Bean fame) in the title role, as various scheming rogues through the march of history. Tony Robinson plays his dogsbody Baldrick, who in times of crisis invariably says, “I have a cunning plan.”
Baldrick’s “outing” as the fourth Brexiteer — the three UK Government principals are David Davis at Exiting the European Union, Liam Fox at International Trade, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — comes courtesy of this Politico headline, “Brussels fears Britain’s ‘Brexit chaos’ part of cunning plan.” EU officials are nonplussed at the cool nonchalance of their Westminster counterparts. “Trade attachés in particular who know their British colleagues as tough, canny negotiators are suspicious of the seemingly fickle and aimless procrastination from the British government,” Politico reports. “The Brits’ chaotic early posture in the Brexit talks has left them wondering whether London is pulling some sort of deft ploy — a strategy of pretending not to have a strategy.”
One EU official is worried that when negotiations resume in September, the British team is “going to swamp us with [position] papers on the fault lines — exactly the issues where they know we [the EU27 countries] are divided.” Further remarks from the Maltese prime minister will encourage Brits anxious over their government’s competence to pull the country out of the European Union. “People who say the Brits don’t know what they are doing are wrong,” Joseph Muscat told the Dutch daily de Volkskrant. “I have lived in Britain, I know the British mentality. A non-prepared British government official simply doesn’t exist.” But Brexiteers shouldn’t get cocky. “A seasoned EU diplomat said that if London had constructed an elaborate ruse to gain the upper hand in Brexit, it had fooled even the British negotiators,” according to Politico. “If it is indeed a mise en scène, this diplomat said: ‘It would be an extremely sophisticated one.’”
Bewilderment among the EU great and good is particularly telling. Consider the immediate remit: the process of sorting out the patriation of British laws from the European Court of Justice; defining the rights and obligations of UK and EU citizens when “abroad”; determining transit protocols at the border of the two Irelands; and fixing on the cost of the “divorce” financial settlement — significant agreement on all these issues must be reached, EU officials demand, before formal trade talks between the EU and Britain can begin. But it is emblematic of the bureaucratic mentality that the Brexit principle itself — national sovereignty, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and government accountability — is incomprehensibly foreign to Eurocrats. It may be one reason why they cannot fathom why UK Government officials are not equally consumed with red tape minutiæ and demonstrate so little taste for more. For if “Brexit means Brexit,” as Prime Minster Theresa May firmly states, it must mean, at the very least, less government and more freedom to do as one will.
This “self-interest” motivates those initiatives at the core of trade, commerce, and business; as Adam Smith framed the economic axiom, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Instead, EU bureaucrats would have the public play the “beggar,” who “chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.” Such is the burden foisted upon the modern welfare-state and, as Smith shrewdly observed, “even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely.” But this is the cumulative objective of any program of high taxes, redistribution, and attacks upon capital accumulation: the reduction of free individuals to state clientele, beholden to government officials. Such thinking explains why Brussels bureaucrats cannot comprehend the UK negotiating strategy and are nonplussed at Brit insouciance. For the Brexit aim is — or should be, the cynic will caution — to tear down regulatory barriers, not erect them; to free initiative, not contain or direct it; to unleash competition and the advancement it brings, not to suppress it in the name of “equality.”
Adam Smith offers a lesson for “fundamentalist” Brexiteers, too. While their adherence to the spirit of the referendum outcome to pull Britain out of the European Union is laudatory, they would be wise not to discount the various “soft” Brexit options out of hand. They may wish to curtail current practices with respect to free movement of labor, goods, and services come the finalization of Brexit in March 2019 (Government moderates hold out a possible deadline of complete EU exit for June 2022, the end of this “fixed-term Parliament”), but is it ultimately in Britain’s self-interest to do so? This is not to back-peddle on Brexit principles, but an open query: How does a sovereign, independent Britain — free to choose, free to later change its mind — act, irrespective of Euroskeptic odium? Put bluntly, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”
In the end, all we can do is wait and trust in the skill, strategy, and foresight of the Brexit negotiators. As Blackadder
Fans will attest, poor Baldrick’s cunning plans were outlandish nonsense, meant to evoke scorn from his superior and laughter from the audience. And Brexit is no laughing matter. But Baldrick is just the sort of patriotic “everyman,” common in English theatre, who voted for Brexit and whom the Government serves: he is full of ideas for making good — for himself, his family, and his nation. As long as his cunning never tires, never fear, for Britain will prosper. “It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people,” Smith wrote of the ruling class of his day. “Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.” Trust in the people animates Brexit. No wonder the EU is flummoxed.
Stephen MacLean maintains the weblog The Organic Tory.