Brexit means what? Time for the metaphors to stop

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May doesn’t like the ‘di­vorce’ metaphor

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE - James Lan­dale

Like the thin twig of peace, the Brexit metaphor has been stretched to melt­ing point. It should be taken round the back of the para­graph and qui­etly put out of its mis­ery.

Since Bri­tain voted to leave the Euro­pean Union, politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors have de­ployed ev­ery­thing from cakes, cher­ries, cats, even golf clubs to try to ex­plain what it might all mean.

Yet, in re­cent weeks, it has be­come clear that many of these analo­gies have be­come ab­surd and re­dun­dant.

The head of the UK’s pub­lic spend­ing watch­dog, Sir Amyas Morse, com­pares Brexit to ‘a choco­late orange’ that might fall apart at the first tap. The Tory MP Char­lie El­ph­icke fears a ‘Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia’ Brexit where ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.

The busi­ness­man Lord Wolf­son likens Brexit to a fran­tic bus jour­ney where the pas­sen­gers are fight­ing over its speed and di­rec­tion.

And Miriam Gon­za­lez Du­ran­tez, the in­ter­na­tional lawyer and wife of the for­mer Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, com­pares Brexit on her food blog to a strawberry pud­ding: ‘The crum­ble, just like Brexit, seems fine on the out­side, though if you look at­ten­tively you can see that there is a mess bub­bling up in­side. And it will def­i­nitely fall apart when you serve it, no mat­ter how hard you try’.

Enough, please. Enough.

In the be­gin­ning, there was some sense in us­ing metaphor to ex­plain a com­plex is­sue. Brexit was ‘soft’ if it in­volved con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship of the sin­gle mar­ket or cus­toms union, ‘hard’ if it meant the op­po­site.

Theresa May then mud­died the wa­ters by ut­ter­ing these words: “I’m in­ter­ested in all these terms that have been iden­ti­fied - hard Brexit, soft Brexit, black Brexit, white Brexit, grey Brexit - and ac­tu­ally what we should be look­ing for is a red, white and blue Brexit.”

Brexit was com­pared to mar­i­tal sep­a­ra­tion be­cause it al­lowed peo­ple to dis­tin­guish be­tween Bri­tain’s im­me­di­ate exit from the EU - the ‘di­vorce’ - and its longert­erm trad­ing re­la­tions.

But the com­par­i­son was stretched to un­sus­tain­able lengths, with dis­cus­sion about who gets to di­vide the mu­sic col­lec­tion and keep the chil­dren and so on.

There was also the small prob­lem that in this di­vorce one side was made up of 27 dif­fer­ent na­tions. Is ‘ Mutti’ Merkel the mother in this metaphor and the other 26 coun­tries her chil­dren? Up to a point, Dr Freud.

The Prime Min­is­ter told MPs in March she did not like the ‘di­vorce’ metaphor. “I pre­fer not to use that term with re­gard to the Euro­pean Union be­cause of­ten, when peo­ple get divorced, they do not have a good re­la­tion­ship af­ter­wards.”

So her du­ti­ful For­eign Sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, steered away from mar­i­tal mat­ters and chose a metaphor closer to his stom­ach than his heart. He de­clared that when it came to Brexit, he wanted Bri­tain to ‘have its cake and eat it’.

The EU coun­tered with its own gas­tro­nomic anal­ogy, say­ing that ‘cherry pick­ing’ the best bits of the EU would not be tol- er­ated.

Again these clichés made some sort of sense at first but later be­came rather silly. I went to a sem­i­nar re­cently where some­one de­clared - with­out irony - that Bri­tain did not want to have its cake and eat it, it just did not agree with the EU what the recipe for the cake should be.

The de­bate about how much money the UK should pay when it ex­its the EU has prompted many fig­u­ra­tive con­tor­tions. Some in Bri­tain ar­gued that when one leaves a golf club, one should stop pay­ing the di­rect debit and cer­tainly not fork out for an­other round of green fees.

But the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent, Jean-Claude Juncker, in­sisted over din­ner with Theresa May in April that the EU was ‘not a golf club that could be eas­ily joined or left’; it was a fam­ily, and Brexit should be treated as di­vorce.

The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment’s Brexit ne­go­tia­tor, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, was more pro­saic, com­par­ing Bri­tain’s out­stand­ing pay­ments to a round of drinks, telling the Fi­nan­cial Times that ‘it would be wrong for EU tax­pay­ers to be asked to pay Bri­tain's bar bill’.

On the other side of Brus­sels, the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor, Michel Barnier, dis­agreed, declar­ing: “There is no Brexit bill. The fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment is only about set­tling the ac­counts.”

The prob­lem is that this only adds to the con­fu­sion. To a French speaker, ‘set­tling the ac­counts’ means no more than Bri­tain pay­ing its debts. To an English speaker, it can just as eas­ily mean the EU seek­ing its re­venge.

Take the Daily Tele­graph’s Al­lis­ter Heath, for ex­am­ple, who wrote that by de­mand­ing bil­lions of eu­ros from the UK, the EU was try­ing to im­pose war repa­ra­tions. “The last time this sort of id­iocy was at­tempted was in 1919, at the Treaty of Ver­sailles, when a de­feated Ger­many was or­dered to ac­cept full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the war and to pay vast repa­ra­tions to the al­lied pow­ers.”

The prob­lem with these metaphors is that they con­fuse the point of the fi­nan­cial dis­pute, namely how much Bri­tain should pay for EU spend­ing in the fu­ture, and not just for its cur­rent and past obli­ga­tions. Un­less, of course, con­fu­sion is the point, a lit­tle cre­ative am­bi­gu­ity to nudge the ne­go­ti­a­tions along.

And still the metaphor-fest has rolled on.

Ver­hof­s­tadt - him again - has de­scribed Brexit as a ‘cat­fight in the Con­ser­va­tive Party that got out of hand’. Em­manuel Macron, the newly elected French pres­i­dent, has said the UK is find­ing out that Brexit was ‘no walk in the park’.

The re­spected com­men­ta­tor, Philip Collins, wrote re­cently in The Times, that ‘leav­ing the Euro­pean Union is a Schrödinger’s cat kind of prob­lem’. Such is his con­fi­dence in the in­tel­li­gence and knowl­edge of Times’ read­ers that Collins chose not to of­fer a word of ex­pla­na­tion.

Those of us un­fa­mil­iar with this par­tic­u­lar fe­line had to reach for Google to dis­cover it refers to a thought prob­lem ask­ing if it is pos­si­ble to hold two con­tra­dic­tory truths at the same time.

At a re­cent news con­fer­ence, Michel Barnier went on a flight of metaphor­i­cal Brexit fancy when he re­vealed that he, like Theresa May, also en­joyed hill walk­ing.

“If you like walk­ing in the moun­tains you have to learn a num­ber of rules. You have to learn to put one foot in front of the other be­cause some­times you are on a steep and rocky path. You also have to look [at] what ac­ci­dents might be­fall you - fall­ing rocks.”

He added: “You have to be very care­ful to keep your breath. You have to have stamina be­cause it could be a lengthy path and you have to keep look­ing at the sum­mit.”

This is very prac­ti­cal or very deep. Ei­ther way, it is very French.

And it is cer­tainly too much. Can we just agree that Brexit means Brexit and leave it at that?

May's du­ti­ful For­eign Sec­re­tary steers away from mar­i­tal mat­ters. He wants Bri­tain to ‘have its cake and eat it’


This file photo shows Bri­tain’s Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May walk­ing be­hind flags of Euro­pean Union as she ar­rives on the sec­ond day of the EU lead­ers’ sum­mit, in Brus­sels on June 23


Bri­tain’s For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son at the stairs of the Syd­ney Opera House, in Syd­ney on July 26

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