Unlike a divorce, the terms of Brexit aren’t up for discussion

European council president Donald Tusk shows Theresa May’s letter invoking article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty.
European council president Donald Tusk shows Theresa May’s letter invoking article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

As Britain formally notifies the EU of its intention to leave it is essential for Brits and Europeans alike to be aware of what is about to start. Both sides tend to speak of a “divorce”, while some British commentators compare the coming negotiations to a “game of chicken”.

These figures of speech are deeply misleading as they feed into a narrative that the UK is still a world power able to shape the circumstances it finds itself in – if not to dictate its terms outright. To see how much this line of thought is still alive, consider how Britain spent the past nine months discussing whether it preferred a “soft” or a “hard” Brexit. The implication was that Britain had a choice – in truth the EU has made it clear from the outset that there are two options only: hard Brexit or no Brexit.

A divorce is between two equal partners. But the UK is to the EU what Belgium, Austria or Portugal are to Germany: an entity eight times as small. If the EU informs the UK that “no soft Brexit means no soft Brexit” then that is what it is.

For the same reason the analogy of a “game of chicken” for the coming negotiations should be cast aside. The UK and the EU may be driving at furious speed into one another, each expecting the other to swerve. But if the UK is a Mini then the EU is a truck.

Except that it is not, because this too is a misleading analogy. Angela Merkel runs the EU’s most important and powerful country but she does not determine what happens in the EU, if only because Germany comprises a mere 20% of the EU economy and only 16% of its population. As much as the Brexiteers like to talk of a European superstate the fact is that no such thing exists. The European commission, the European parliament and the EU member states share power without a single overriding body or office to coordinate events or impose its will. To return to the “game of chicken” analogy: the EU truck has no driver.

And to add even more to Britain’s isolation and vulnerability, the declaration by EU leaders in Rome last week made clear that member states have more important things on their minds than Brexit. Think of terrorism, refugees, eurozone architecture, populist parties, economic stagnation in southern Europe and Russia, to name the top six.

Were one to use an analogy for the EU the best one is probably that of a club of almost 30 vessels sailing together in the belief that this serves their interests. It is not a prison and as is its right, Britain has now voted to leave this club. It is therefore being asked to pay its outstanding bills and get out as soon as possible.

The idea that Britain could cancel its membership yet continue to use the facilities is ludicrous, and yet another example of British self-centrism. Equally ludicrous is the idea that barring Britain from the club’s facilities after its departure amounts to “punishment”. Suppose I cancel my subscription to a newspaper and that newspaper stops being sent to me. Am I now being “made an example of” in order to deter others from cancelling their subscription?

The best characterisation, then, of what is about to come is probably something like “settlement”, “unwinding”, “disentanglement” or “removal”.

In any case the coming negotiations are extremely serious as they will affect the lives of millions of people for years. This is not a game and what is being negotiated is not a divorce. If anything, it is a self-inflicted downgrade.

Joris Luyendijk is the author of Swimming with Sharks: My Journey Into the World of the Bankers and the former writer of the Guardian's Banking Blog, which looked at finance from an anthropological perspective.

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