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Op-Ed World Affairs

Playing Chicken with Europe

London, United Kingdom

The philosopher Bertrand Russell believed the Cold War nuclear standoff resembled a high-risk game played by "youthful degenerates." British Prime Minister Theresa May is playing a similar game, and if her Brexit brinkmanship goes wrong, the victim would be Britain.

By Chris Patten

Feb 13, 2019  – The game of chicken is simple to describe but dangerous to play. Based on evolutionary game theory, it was sometimes used to describe nuclear brinkmanship during the Cold War.

Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher and campaigner against nuclear weapons, reminded us that the game is usually played between what he called “youthful degenerates.” The players drive cars toward each other at high speed from opposite directions; the first driver to swerve away from a head-on collision – or, in some variants, to jump from the driver’s seat before it reaches a cliff edge – is the “chicken.” Russell believed this to be a description of the putative statesmanship of the nuclear powers in the Cold War. One miscalculation, one failure to swerve, and the result could be Armageddon: hundreds of millions of deaths, flattened cities, the end of civilization.

A less perilous version of chicken is being played by Theresa May, the obstinate vicar’s daughter who is the United Kingdom’s prime minister. If her diplomacy does not swerve soon, the victim will be Britain’s economy and wellbeing.

The deal May has negotiated for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union would leave the country poorer (according to some of her own ministers) and less influential, but at least not faced with a lethal crash. May’s exit deal is just that: it would not settle Britain’s future relationship with Europe. What will trade relations look like? How will the UK safeguard its scientific research base and world-class universities? How will its economic agreements with other countries be managed?

Years of argument with the 27 EU member states about those issues lie ahead. But at least we could avoid leaving the EU with no deal, limiting the immediate shock of departure at the price of a long and vexatious transition period.

The trouble, of course, is that in January Britain’s House of Commons rejected May’s deal by a margin of more than 200 votes – the biggest defeat suffered by any British government in living memory. There were three main objections to the accord.

Some believed that no deal could possibly be as good as canceling Brexit and remaining in the EU – an idea that many in this group wanted to test in a second referendum. Others reckoned that too little was clear about the future relationship with Britain’s closest neighbors. And still others – the English nationalists on the right wing of the Conservative Party – objected to the arrangements made to deal with the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The issue of the Irish border – a practical symbol of the potentially violent destructiveness of Ireland’s identity politics – raises questions of security as well as commerce. May herself regards the issue as closely related to the continued integrity and vitality of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the communal violence in Northern Ireland. No one wants to risk a return to the Troubles.

The economic and commercial issue raised by the Irish border is simple. A major reason Britain refused to join the European Economic Community in the 1950s and 1960s was its desire for free-trade agreements with European countries. They wanted a customs union, with an external tariff to protect member countries against imports from elsewhere. Without this, how could a farmer in the Benelux countries or France be sure that lamb imported from Britain had come from there and not originally from, say, New Zealand?

There is nowhere in the world where two countries or groups of countries with different trade and regulatory regimes exist side by side without a hard border between them. Moreover, there is no technology anywhere that allows a border to be managed without some way of stopping and checking the goods that cross it. This is a fundamental issue for the EU, which must safeguard the coherence and integrity of the single market.

The May deal provides a so-called backstop to deal with the border issue until Britain, far in the future, concludes a comprehensive trading agreement with Europe. Until then, Britain would remain in the EU customs union. This should cause no problems, because the idea that we can run a successful trade policy on our own is proving to be – as predicted – illusory.

But May’s right-wing opponents argue that the backstop would keep the UK in the customs union forever, and she refuses to face them down. So May is trying to negotiate some form of legally binding agreement with the EU to guarantee an end date to the backstop. But a backstop with no back would be like an insurance policy that pays off whenever Britain decides to stop paying the premium.

So what exactly is the game of chicken? First, May eyeballs her critics in Parliament and in effect threatens to run the issue down to the wire on March 29, when the UK is due to leave the EU, with or without a deal. No swerve here would lead to a devastating crash for Britain, which no prime minister should be prepared to contemplate. But May refuses to allow a vote in Parliament to rule out a “no deal” Brexit or to postpone the  departure date to give the UK more negotiating time.

The other opponents in May’s game of chicken are the 27 EU members. They don’t want a crash, but nor do they want to dump the Republic of Ireland or sabotage their own single market.

If this brinkmanship goes wrong, the victim would be Britain – its economy, jobs, trade, and international reputation. I assume that the EU fears massive disruption as well, but thinks that May is bluffing. How could a democratic leader be so irresponsible as to appease a cabal of right-wing nationalists whose reliability and trustworthiness are in any case suspect?

On the other hand, to adapt a quote by the English writer Saki, we know that our political leaders are wedded to reason and truth, but, like other married couples, they sometimes live apart. Meanwhile, the vehicles pick up speed, the distance between them shortens, and no one has yet swerved.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.