UK PM Johnson Must Avoid the EU’s Brexit Trap – OpEd


By Dr. John C. Hulsman*

The great American humorist, Dave Barry, summed up my working philosophy perfectly when he said: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” All too often the refuge of the mediocre, the long-winded and the emotionally needy, I remember the exuberant feeling of liberation that came over me when I set up my own political risk business — which actually gets things done — fleeing Washington, one of the meetings capitals of the world.

But nowhere on the planet are meetings used to such effect as in Brussels, where the EU’s functionalist elite has managed to weaponize the meetings process. After decades of suffering through interminable, incessant, utterly unimportant gatherings of the foreign policy elite there, I well understand British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s increasingly transparent urge to scream at the top of his lungs: “I’ll agree to anything you say, as long as you cease saying it.”

However, Johnson must hold firm. From a functionalist’s point of view, boring you is the point. Substance, for its own sake, doesn’t matter to the functionalists who comprise the foreign policy elite of Europe. Indeed, it is to be avoided at almost all costs. Rather, for them the point of the exercise is the process itself, which becomes, over time, an end in itself.

Given that the EU has to corral 27 member states to get anything done at all, it is perhaps understandable that keeping the herd together has taken precedence over the quality of the political output itself. Given its peculiar construction, EU policies will always be compromises.

But European functionalists have gone well beyond this, turning this inherent weakness into a foreign policy weapon. Exporting its internal processes, in prizing process over policy in dealing with external actors as well, Brussels attempts to bewitch them into thinking reaching an agreement is the goal of meetings, rather than focusing overmuch on the content of the agreement itself. This is just what the EU is now presently doing in the arduous last lap of its seemingly never-ending negotiations with the UK over Brexit.

Johnson has already conceded more than he should in his increasingly desperate hope of reaching a deal. The UK — despite the fact that Brexit was enacted precisely to let it reclaim its sovereignty, its ability to act independently in domestic and foreign matters — is prepared to agree to non-regression clauses in the trade agreement, meaning it promises not to decrease its present standards on environmental laws or workers’ rights, which would give it a huge economic competitive advantage over the most over-regulated continent on the planet. From a Thatcherite perspective, this amounts to unilateral economic disarmament, but Johnson blithely threw away this huge benefit of Brexit, all in the hope of agreement for agreement’s sake.

Of course, encouraged by this daft bit of negotiating, the EU now wants more. Tabled at the last minute by its lead negotiator Michel Barnier, Brussels now demands London’s unconditional surrender, without the benefit of success in battle. The new EU proposal, wholly unique in the annals of trade deals, would force Britain not only to promise to keep workers’ and environmental standards where they are now, but in the future to keep pace with Europe increasing its regulatory empire, however little sense this makes economically. In essence, London would have to adopt EU standards for the rest of time, or be subject to lightning tariffs from Brussels to see that the UK does not benefit from this “unfair” economic situation.

It is here that the minority of us who believe in logic must shout from the rooftops. If this clause were to be accepted, there is absolutely no point in Brexit occurring at all. Period. If the UK limply promises to move in time with EU regulation forever, whatever its precise feelings about the usefulness of the regulations being adopted and whether they suit UK citizens, it has merely become a political and economic colony of Brussels.

Here the EU’s mask is off at last. In its confusion — after literally thousands of meetings about borders, law, taxes, fish, trucks, passports, foreign policy, domestic policy, regulation, governance, subsidies, and citizenship — the EU still does not intellectually or emotionally accept the basic notion that Britain is not a rebellious province of its far-flung empire. Rather, the UK is a fully sovereign, independent state negotiating a trade deal with it. Brexit, indeed, means Brexit. Brussels’ outrageous negotiating stance over what it calls, in Orwellian terms, “a level playing field” proves that it still does not accept the ramifications of Brexit at all.

As a realist, I do not blame the EU for trying one last time to nullify the result of the Brexit referendum. If the UK government is so intellectually addled, so desperate to be loved, so keen for an agreement that it is willing to forsake its hard-won sovereignty for the goal of a deal at any price, that is London’s fault, not the continent’s. Meetings can drive you crazy. It is up to the Johnson government to put an end to them. 

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via

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