Elliot Keck works for BICOM, and is a Conservative Party activist in West London. This piece is written in a personal capacity.
“Do you realise what you’re asking for here? Insurance, taxes, social security for three people,” an incredulous David Wallace exclaims as he processes Michael Scott’s demands for the buyout of his eponymously-named paper company in the American version of The Office.
Michael Scott’s paper company is effectively bankrupt, the consequence of predatory pricing designed to steal clients from Dunder Mifflin, of which David Wallace is the Chief Finance Officer. Wallace would appear to have all the cards in his hands as the CFO of a corporate giant against a brave, tenacious, but ultimately naïve and desperate start-up.
But as Scott explains to a stunned Wallace: “Your company is losing clients left and right. You have a stockholder meeting coming up and you are going to have to explain to them why your most profitable branch is bleeding. So they may be looking for a little change in the CFO. So I don’t think I need to wait out Dunder Mifflin. I think I just have to wait out you.”
Knowingly or not, Boris Johnson is taking the Michael Scott approach in negotiations with the European Union. The power differentials are stark. The European Union is a vast, highly integrated trading bloc of nearly 450 million people; the UK’s population is just shy of 70 million.
The EU’s nominal GDP (2018 figures) once the UK is stripped out stands at just under 16 trillion dollars. The UK’s nominal GDP in the same year was under three trillion dollars. True, the EU exports more to the UK than vice versa, but as a percentage of total exports there is no comparison. None of this is to deny the economic strength of the UK, but rather to acknowledge the economic might of the EU.
So why the hardball on the part of Johnson? Well, because the balance of power in negotiations cannot simply be boiled down to a state-centred analysis of relative strength. This is a traditional international relations approach, in which states are seen as discrete units with clear, identifiable interests.
But the development of a different school of thought within academic international relations provides a new and arguably improved framework – Foreign Policy Analysis.
The essential insight of Foreign Policy Analysis is that foreign policy is decided at multiple levels, and as a result of myriad competing factors which weave their way into the decision-making matrix. To return to Michael Scott and David Wallace, Michael Scott’s gamble is that although it is in Dunder Mifflin’s interest to simply wait for the inevitable collapse of his paper company, it is in David Wallace’s interest to wrap things up quickly, due to fears for his position. Johnson is making a strikingly similar gamble.
His victory last December has given him breathing space. He has a sizeable majority of MPs loyal to him to ensure that he has four to five before needing to face the electorate again. Other European leaders are not so lucky. By the end of 2022, barely halfway through Boris’s term, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Czech Republic among others will have gone to the polls.
If the UK leaves with no deal it may well be the case that the UK suffers more than the EU – but suffer the EU will. And it will be EU leaders who have to explain themselves to angry electorates long before Boris has to do the same.
So while according to the traditional international relations framework, the EU should be willing to push the UK to the brink, the EU’s leaders may not be. David Wallace ceded to Michael Scott’s demands; concerned for their jobs, and fearful of their electorates, it’s possible that EU leaders may do the same.