It’s fairly safe to assume that an experienced operator such as Michel Barnier doesn’t indulge in idle chat. When he says something, it’s for a reason. Generally, post-meeting statements will be about controlling what these days is called the ‘optics’ – the way things are presented by the media and, hence, how they are perceived by the public. Or, at least, that small subset of the public which is taking the slightest interest.
Sometimes, however, the signals being sent in these statements may be intended, not for the media/public, but for the other side in the negotiations. The intent may be as much about steering the internal dynamics of discussions as controlling how things are perceived by the outside world.
Interpreting these signals can be tricky. The messages may be subtle. They may mean different things depending on whether or not the recipient is privy to what went on in the closed sessions. Context, as always, is paramount. But it is always safest to assume that even the most innocent-sounding utterances are laden with meaning. Unravelling that meaning, or speculating about the possible significance of words and phrases, is likely to the best we can hope for in terms of squeezing some entertainment value out of the Brexit talks.
Take, for example, Michel Barnier’s rather pointed remarks stressing that Brexit is the UK’s choice. He seems to be making a particular effort to emphasise that Brexit is something the UK is doing, not something that is being done to it. As he says,
“The United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union, it is not the other way around.”
This might be interpreted as an exercise in optics management. An attempt to create, or reinforce, the impression that the EU is being reasonable. That it regrets the break-up, but is determined to be reasonable about the practicalities. Perhaps even an attempt to portray the EU as the ‘injured party’ in an effort to elicit sympathy.
But the language used can also be heard as a response prompted by the attitude of the UK in private talks. It may be that, even this early in proceedings, David Davis has revealed his intention to seek to treat the EU as a hostile actor and to make sure that blame for the ‘unfortunate’ consequences of Brexit is shifted to the EU. Barnier’s words can be seen as a warning to Davis that this blame-shifting tactic will be resisted.
Taken together with the Davis’s insistence that the UK had obtained everything it wanted from this first meeting, despite having been knocked back on pretty much all its demands, it looks like the broad strategy is very much as predicted. Hail every development as a triumph for British diplomacy. When that fails, blame the foreigners. Rely on the loyal British media to manage the favourable optics.Views: 4054
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