The Gordian Knot is a myth surrounding that great conqueror of early history, Alexander of Macedon who when faced with a rope so knotted that it could not be unwound by the most skilful of champions took out his sword and cut the knot into pieces: thus solving the problem and providing the first demonstration in lateral thinking.
Flash forward three thousand years, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May finds herself faced with her own Gordian knot in negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union. In each turn of the knot, she finds herself further and further entangled within its shackles. Each knot has its own strand each with its own objectives and impact on the UK and indeed the EU at large.
Strand one: The divorce bill
£27bn, £40bn, £57bn. The price of Britain’s exit seems to increase week to week, certainly in the newspaper headlines anyway. Things are often spun in such a way as to make the EU’s demands overtly punitive, and yes to some degree they are in terms of actual cost. The problem is this: We signed up to these agreements which placed a cost on our membership and now we have to honour those agreements.
The issue now is that this bill is being used in a game of brinkmanship by the EU. To get the trade deal we must first pay the piper, and the EU is calling the tune. The problem is, if we refuse to pay we can’t legally leave and we risk engendering the bad feeling of future trading partners. However if we pay an overtly large settlement in order to achieve the next step in the process, the Prime Minister loses all credibility in the British parliament and media.
Strand two: What is a soft border anyway?
Historically, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has always been a ‘soft’ border than a ‘hard’ one going back to the founding of the Irish free state in 1919. However with Ireland being a member of the EU and the UK in the future not being a member, the question becomes what to do with Northern Ireland.
If we leave the border as a soft one, then we open a backdoor into the UK which could be exploited by thousands of economic migrants both legally and illegally as they would be able to become citizens of Northern Ireland and vicariously the UK.
The problem is if we have a hard border, we risk endangering over 30 years of improved relations between Northern and Southern Ireland, going all the way back to the Good Friday agreement, which ended the Irish troubles. The EU knows this and have given the Irish a veto on any border negotiations between ourselves and the EU.
A border needs to be maintained, there needs to be a clear distinction between what is now EU territory and what is UK territory, with the channel it is easy, with Ireland it will be harder.
Strand three: Proving the EU to be right
The European Union was designed to be an organisation of equal rights where everyone would be happy and everyone’s concerns would be listened to. No one is supposed to want to leave political paradise. Now that we have thrown that dream out of the window in asking to leave, the EU is entering damage control.
Part of that damage control is enforcing an exit that is punitive so as to discourage others from seeking the same exit that we are seeking. Another part is that an exit was never envisioned by the people writing the EU so this is new territory, both politically and sociologically and in any new territory there are going to be bumps in the road.
By pursuing a hard Brexit we achieve our aims but we engender an undercurrent of hostility over our exit from the EU. Other nations, emboldened by our exit may seek to renegotiate their deals and if these negotiations fail, then more and more nations will leave.
Strand Four: Party politics
No party can be seen to go against the will of the British people, especially where the EU referendum is concerned, however the Labour party has been largely indifferent in its Brexit stance, not deciding between a hard Brexit (which would appease the Brexiteers) and a so called soft Brexit (which would appease the remainers, who don’t want to leave the EU).
The more concessions Theresa May makes, the more she loses the support of her own party and now following the disastrous general election in May, Mrs May now has to balance the support of her own party with her new coalition partners: The Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP is a party which has a profoundly religious background of somewhat radical ideas.
Their brand of unionism and their proximity to the Irish question makes them a key player in the EU negotiations add to that their ability to collapse the May government by withdrawing their support and the difficulty that the Conservative government under Theresa May faces is self-evident.
Strand Five: Home problems
When faced with a choice, 52% of voters in this country voted to leave the EU. Regardless of the politics involved we said we wanted to leave and now the government is charged with making that happen.
But politics in this country didn’t suddenly stop, the problems in this country didn’t suddenly cease functioning and they will continue to do so even when we leave the EU. The problem is, finding the right time to address these long standing problems when we have more immediate concerns.
We have two years to leave the EU, as mandated by our treaty with them and we have to make it work within that time. The problem is that parts of the negotiation there affect problems here.
If we pull out of the single market without an effective substitute then our economy suffers, if we lose the European court of human rights without an effective judiciary authority to replace it then the legal system suffers and so on and so forth. So we can’t ignore the negotiations and we can’t address our own long standing problems without addressing short term concerns.
Cutting the knot
Alexander demonstrated lateral thinking in cutting the knot with his sword. Theresa May can do the same, but she needs to display the same confidence in her thinking to do so.
Brexit is going to happen and no second referendum is going to change that, however what may be needed is the ability to act definitively: to pay the bill, to sort out the border, to change the language and bring the EU back to positivity in these negotiations, to build a political consensus and to support our own country.
Can she do so? Potentially yes. Will she do so and remain in charge? No. Decisiveness and democracy don’t always get along and I think the first casualty of Brexit will be Mrs May.