Listen to geopolitics speaker and war gamer John Hulsman and I talk about emotion and the future of Europe

At the end of last week I caught up with geopolitics speaker John Hulsman on a skype call. We took another opportunity to mull over the war game John moderated for the think tank Open Europe: why had it been so emotional, and what did all that emotion signify. A lot, we both thought. You can listen to our conversation (21:34) here.

Here are some detailed notes I made immediately after the war game just in case you find them interesting. They detail my 3 key learnings from the game: (1) that Britain and the rest of Europe see the EU, and the world, fundamentally differently; (2) that no one has thought very much about what Brexit would actually mean and (3) if we ever got to Brexit negotiations, the future of the EU would be in question:

– The game was played in London on Monday 25th January, just a few weeks before the European Council meeting which David Cameron hopes will give him a deal he can take to the British people in a 2016 referendum. The format was a round-table discussion. You can watch Open Europe’s live stream here: http://openeurope.org.uk/blog/eu-wargames-simulating-the-negotiations-that-will-determine-britains-place-in-europe/.

**Health Warning: this was a game, and compressed months of activity into a few hours, involved just 10 players (rather than 29), and took place in the isolation of a television studio. So it’s not the real world, though it generated some very real world insights.**

– Part I, which played through the morning, simulated the renegotiation currently going on between David Cameron and the Rest of the EU (RoE) regarding the terms of Britain’s membership. Part II, which played through the afternoon, presumed that a British referendum had been won by LEAVE, and gathered together Britain (played by former British Chancellor Norman Lamont) and the RoE (played by a former German Deputy Finance Minister, a French Minister for Europe, Dutch Employment Minister, Italian Prime Minister, Spanish Foreign Minister, Polish Deputy Prime Minister, Swedish Trade Minister and European Trade Commissioner) to negotiate the terms of Britain’s exit (BREXIT). The game was moderated by John Hulsman, the American risk analyst and war gamer.

– I am going to dwell on Part II, because in the real world Part I is almost done, and cannot be influenced. Part II remains unknown – the dark forest which so many fear to enter. Well, those of us who watched the game have been inside the dark forest.

– At the beginning of the session, Britain made its BREXIT demands: a free trade deal covering manufacturing, good and services (including the City), citing the EU’s imminent free trade deal with Canada as a possible model. There was surprise among the RoE that Britain hadn’t followed the Norway or Switzerland model. Britain was accused of “cherry picking”. To sweeten its offer, Britain offered more co-operation in security and defence, including putting cash into the EU’s defence budget. There was a good deal of back and forth. It was clear that everyone was in the dark, fumbling for a way forward. I think this helped explained why the discussion was surprisingly emotional (NB: the protagonists were all experienced politicians who had achieved Cabinet rank in their countries).

– For some excellent analysis of what followed, read Open Europe’s very thoughtful and comprehensive note here: http://openeurope.org.uk/today/blog/open-europe-eu-wargames-what-did-they-tell-us/

I can’t improve on Open Europe’s analysis, but here are the three things that struck me about the game:

(1) BRITAIN AND THE REST OF EUROPE SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY

Watching the British player outnumbered and isolated, and the RoE united in their dealings with him, was an uncomfortable experience. Here was Britain making trouble again, forcing its partners to sit down at a negotiating table when they had better things to do. Listen to these patient, hard pressed individuals each speaking wonderful English and each expressing their exasperation with Britain. What made Britain so special, so entitled to think itself better than the rest? Why must we always be trimming and looking to improve our situation? Etc. What followed was not the awkward but fundamentally collaborative exchange between partners that has characterised Britain’s reform negotiations in Part I, but a much more difficult negotiation between ex-partners. The “divorce” word was used a great deal.

The continental mentality is to hunker and hold hands, and finds the communality comforting and some sort of a substitution for bread – the island mentality wanders and doesn’t fear loneliness nor weigh any relationship too high. For Continental Europe’s political class, belief in the necessity of further European integration has become an article of faith. European Union represents the Continent’s moral response to the bloodshed of the twentieth century. ‘Ever Closer Union’ is a triumph of enlightened self-interest, coolly post-modern, communitarian, highly complex, fragile, religious in its beauty. And the Brits are contemplating turning their back on this extraordinary achievement. Which has been so hard won, and which still has so far to go!

Very few of Britain’s Europhiles share this dreamy view, and the majority of voters have what John calls a transactional relationship with Europe – they consider the project overblown and expensive but they are prepared to go along with it if they judge it to be in Britain’s best interests. Brits don’t see the monuments to peaceful collaboration or the historic journey, they see a trading bloc and convenient travel and an annoying bureaucracy. This disconnect was evident in the game. Not only were the British demanding to leave (heresy!), they were demanding a ridiculously simple free trade arrangement which ignored the EU’s intricate complexities and contradictions. The transactional Brits want something they can use for specific purposes. The RoE want a promise, a vision, a narrative. For many on the Continent, and most of its political class, this vision remains a United States of Europe. Not now but one day. There’s nothing wrong with this vision, accept that it isn’t shared by the British.

(2) NO ONE KNOWS WHAT BREXIT WOULD ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE

Why should they? The British and RoE establishments don’t want to think about something so serious and unwanted, and anyway are focusing on winning the referendum. So are the LEAVE campaigns. If Britain does vote to leave at a referendum, everyone will be in the dark forest, uncertain about what to do next and without  a map to follow. This uncertainty is likely to make the process even more difficult, at least at the outset. In the meantime, this uncertainty suits the REMAIN campaign. Fear of the dark may well persuade British voters to stay where they are.

(3) IF WE EVER GET TO BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS THE FUTURE OF THE EU WILL BE ON THE TABLE

Don’t underestimate how high the stakes are for the RoE. Its leaders feel assailed by crisis after crisis, and there is a sense that European integration is running out of momentum. Hence a plan for a new Treaty and a new narrative around deepening Economic and Monetary Union. But this Treaty is years away, and in between seems only more bad news. Judging by the mood among the RoE leaders, they worry that BREXIT could destabilise the EU at a very fragile time:

(i) Within 20 years Britain will be Europe’s most populous country and possibly its richest. At this moment in time Britain is growing more quickly than any other EU member state. Britain is Europe’s biggest military spender and the EU’s second largest contributor of funds (after Germany). Quite a loss.

(ii) A BREXIT vote by arguably (and currently) Europe’s most dynamic and open member state would be a humiliating vote of no confidence. British voters would be steeping into the unknown, in the face of terrible warnings, because they regarded this as a safer option than staying in the EU.

(iii) BREXIT would encourage parties campaigning against EU membership in other countries to try harder. These tend to be extremist, racially motivated parties like France’s Front National which have proved effective at harnessing the frustration of Europe’s losers – the indigenous poor and lower middle class, the millions of young people unable to find work since the financial crisis.

(iv) A BREXIT vote will trigger a negotiated British exit under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (1997). Imagine a protracted divorce, taking place in full view of everyone, with lawyers on both sides making a fortune. No one knows how this would run, not what would come out of it. Both sides would want the process over quickly but neither could afford to hurry it. The EU already feels harried and weakened by one crisis after another – as former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta argued, these negotiations would be an energy-sapping distraction .

(v) Northern member states like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden value Britain as Europe’s most consistent champion of openness, competition and market de-regulation. With Britain gone, they fear it will be harder to keep Europe competitive.

For more information about John Hulsman’s war games, please email me at alex@chartwellspeakers.com

Here are some detailed notes I made immediately after the game which you might find interesting. They detail my 3 key learnings from the game: that Britain and the rest of Europe see the EU, and the world, fundamentally differently; that no one has thought very much about what Brexit would actually mean and that if we ever got to Brexit negotiations, the future of the EU would be in question:

The game was played in London on Monday 25th January, just a few weeks before the European Council meeting which David Cameron hopes will give him a deal he can take to the British people in a 2016 referendum. The format was a round-table discussion. You can watch Open Europe’s live stream here: http://openeurope.org.uk/blog/eu-wargames-simulating-the-negotiations-that-will-determine-britains-place-in-europe/.

**Health Warning: this was a game, and compressed months of activity into a few hours, involved just 10 players (rather than 29), and took place in the isolation of a television studio. So it’s not the real world, though it generated some very real world insights.**

Part I, which played through the morning, simulated the renegotiation currently going on between David Cameron and the Rest of the EU (RoE) regarding the terms of Britain’s membership. Part II, which played through the afternoon, presumed that a British referendum had been won by LEAVE, and gathered together Britain (played by former British Chancellor Norman Lamont) and the RoE (played by a former German Deputy Finance Minister, a French Minister for Europe, Dutch Employment Minister, Italian Prime Minister, Spanish Foreign Minister, Polish Deputy Prime Minister, Swedish Trade Minister and European Trade Commissioner) to negotiate the terms of Britain’s exit (BREXIT). The game was moderated by John Hulsman, the American risk analyst and war gamer.

I am going to dwell on Part II, because in the real world Part I is almost done, and cannot be influenced. Part II remains unknown – the dark forest which so many fear to enter. Well, those of us who watched the game have been inside the dark forest.

At the beginning of the session, Britain made its BREXIT demands: a free trade deal covering manufacturing, good and services (including the City), citing the EU’s imminent free trade deal with Canada as a possible model. There was surprise among the RoE that Britain hadn’t followed the Norway or Switzerland model. Britain was accused of “cherry picking”. To sweeten its offer, Britain offered more co-operation in security and defence, including putting cash into the EU’s defence budget. There was a good deal of back and forth. It was clear that everyone was in the dark, fumbling for a way forward. This helped explained why the discussion was surprisingly emotional (NB: the protagonists were all experienced politicians who had achieved Cabinet rank in their countries).

For some excellent analysis of what followed, read Open Europe’s very thoughtful and comprehensive note here: http://openeurope.org.uk/today/blog/open-europe-eu-wargames-what-did-they-tell-us/

I can’t improve on Open Europe’s analysis, but I can share the three things that struck me about the game:

(1) BRITAIN AND THE REST OF EUROPE SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY

Watching the British player outnumbered and isolated, and the RoE united in their dealings with him, was an uncomfortable experience. Here was Britain making trouble again, forcing its partners to sit down at a negotiating table when they had better things to do. Listen to these patient, hard pressed individuals each speaking wonderful English and each expressing their exasperation with Britain. What made Britain so special, so entitled to think itself better than the rest? Why must we always be trimming and looking to improve our situation? Etc. What followed was not the awkward but fundamentally collaborative exchange between partners that has characterised Britain’s reform negotiations in Part I, but a much more difficult negotiation between ex-partners. The “divorce” word was used a great deal.

The continental mentality is to hunker and hold hands, and finds the communality comforting and some sort of a substitution for bread – the island mentality wanders and doesn’t fear loneliness nor weigh any relationship too high. For Continental Europe’s political class, belief in the necessity of further European integration has become an article of faith. European Union represents the Continent’s moral response to the bloodshed of the twentieth century. ‘Ever Closer Union’ is a triumph of enlightened self-interest, coolly post-modern, communitarian, highly complex, fragile, religious in its beauty. And the Brits are contemplating turning their back on this extraordinary achievement. Which has been so hard won, and which still has so far to go!

Very few of Britain’s Europhiles share this dreamy view, and the majority of voters have what John Hulsman called a transactional relationship with Europe – they consider the project overblown and expensive but they are prepared to go along with it if they judge it to be in Britain’s best interests. Brits don’t see the monuments to peaceful collaboration or the historic journey, they see a trading bloc and convenient travel and an annoying bureaucracy. This disconnect was evident in the game. Not only were the British demanding to leave (a heresy!), they were demanding a ridiculously simple free trade arrangement which ignored the EU’s intricate complexities and contradictions. The transactional Brits want something they can use for specific purposes. The RoE want a promise, a vision, a narrative. For many on the Continent, and most of its political class, this vision is a United States of Europe. Not now but one day. There’s nothing wrong with this vision, accept that it isn’t shared by the British.

(2) NO ONE KNOWS WHAT BREXIT WOULD ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE

Why should they? The British and RoE establishments don’t want to think about something so serious and unwanted, and anyway are focusing on winning the referendum. So are the LEAVE campaigns, and each one is a cross-party coalitions which would find it impossible to agree on a clear vision for BREXIT Britain. If Britain does vote to leave at a referendum, everyone will be in the dark forest, uncertain about what to do next and no map to follow. This uncertainty is likely to make the process even more difficult, at least at the outset. In the meantime, this uncertainty suits the REMAIN campaign. Fear of the dark may well persuade British voters to stay where they are.

(3) IF WE GET TO BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS,

Don’t underestimate how high the stakes are for the RoE. Its leaders feel assailed by crisis after crisis, and there is a sense that European integration is running out of momentum. Hence a plan for a new Treaty and a new narrative around deepening Economic and Monetary Union. But this Treaty is years away, and in between seems only more bad news. Judging by the mood among the RoE leaders, they worry that BREXIT could destabilise the EU at a very fragile time:

(i) Within 20 years Britain will be Europe’s most populous country and possibly its richest. At this moment in time Britain is growing more quickly than any other EU member state. Britain is Europe’s biggest military spender and the EU’s second largest contributor of funds (after Germany). Quite a loss.

(ii) A BREXIT vote by arguably (and currently) Europe’s most dynamic and open member state would be a humiliating vote of no confidence. British voters would be steeping into the unknown, in the face of terrible warnings, because they regarded this as a safer option than staying in the EU.

(iii) BREXIT would encourage parties campaigning against EU membership in other countries to try harder. These tend to be extremist, racially motivated parties like France’s Front National which have proved effective at harnessing the frustration of Europe’s losers – the indigenous poor and lower middle class, the millions of young people unable to find work since the financial crisis.

(iv) A BREXIT vote will trigger a negotiated British exit under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (1997). Imagine a protracted divorce, taking place in full view of everyone, with lawyers on both sides making a fortune. No one knows how this would run, not what would come out of it. Both sides would want the process over quickly but neither could afford to hurry it. The EU feels harried and weakened by events – these negotiations would be an energy-sapping distraction from dealing with them.

(v) Northern member states like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden value Britain as Europe’s most consistent champion of openness, competition and market de-regulation. With Britain gone, they fear it will be harder to keep Europe competitive.

 

For more information about John Hulsman’s war games, please email me at alex@chartwellspeakers.com

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