Tertium non datur, Brexit negotiation edition

The Brexit Phony War is coming to an end.

Apparently the government is preparing to trigger Article 50 next week. Having trounced the House of Lords, the EU negotiatiors will be a cakewalk.

  • Commons: Give us the precious!
  • Lords: It is too much power. You must consent to some minor restrictions.
  • Commons: Give us the precious!
  • Lords: Okay.

Why do the Lords even bother to go on existing?

One of the more bizarre claims made by the government was to explain its opposition to the House of Lords amendment that mandates a final vote in Parliament on the Brexit deal in two years.

Downing Street has warned Lords that an attempt to give Parliament the final say over Brexit will “incentivise” the EU to give Britain a bad deal.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman argued that guaranteeing Parliament the power to reject Theresa May’s deal would “give strength” to EU negotiators during talks.

What is bizarre is that the usual argument is exactly the opposite: The negotiators are strengthened by being able to argue that their hands are tied by needing to convince skeptical legislators back home. Don’t bother offering us a crappy deal, because even if you dazzle us, it will never get through Parliament.

I understand the difference here — the EU doesn’t actually have much motivation to make any deal at all, and would be happy to have it rejected — but that just underlines how fatally weak the British position is. Supposing the EU negotiators would offer a deal that they are sure Parliament would reject. There are two possibilities:

1) The government would reject it too. In that case, it would never go to Parliament anyway, so Parliament’s right to a final vote is moot.

2) The government would accept it. In that case, what would motivate them to offer a better deal?

Am I missing something?

Contorting with reality

People misspeak all the time, and there’s usually no point to mocking them for it.

But in this quote from an article about dissatisfaction among Congressional Republicans with the way the Congressional Budget Office is likely to evaluate their healthcare proposal, Senator Roger Wicker reveals too much about the true basis of their disagreement

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he has “never been one who worried too much about scores because there are constraints that the bean counters have to operate under that don’t necessarily contort with reality.”

Relaxing at Mar-a-Lago

According to the Washington Post Donald Trump had a miserable weekend, brooding over the mean-spirited press coverage of his remarkably successful first diplomatic initiatives toward Russia. Fortunately, his closest advisers know just how to lift his gloomy spirits:

That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.

If he gets really down in the dumps, perhaps they can cheer him up by screening video of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

Trump’s foreign affairs

I was thinking about this comment by Josh Marshall

One of the first bits of news that attracted attention to this possible link was a Trump campaign effort to soften the GOP platform’s plank on Russia and Ukraine at the GOP convention.

I think this fits the development of my thinking, more or less, but it leaves something out. As someone who nothing of the personalities involved, I was already primed to think there was something important and odd about Trump’s connections to Ukraine in particular by the reporting on his hiring of Paul Manafort to advise his campaign in March 2016, and Manafort later becoming campaign manager in April. I remember very clearly thinking, how peculiar that someone with so much foreign experience is guiding a US presidential campaign. And someone who has been working in Ukraine, of all places. Within the context of US politics, which is usually so parochial, an operative who had gone off to work for Eastern European oligarchs and Third World dictators seemed inherently corrupt, like many of the figures that Trump associated with in New York real estate who had slipped across the border from shady dealing into outright criminality, and could no longer be seen in respectable society.

I interpreted it as a sign of Trump’s inability to attract normal campaign operatives to his strange ethno-nationalist insurgency. But then there was this 28 April article by Franklin Foer in Slate:

Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective…
Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump? One of his friends told me, “He wanted to do his thing on home turf. He wanted one last shot at the big prize.”

Deadbeat Britain

My prediction for quite a while has been that the xenophobia is going to heat up here pretty soon, when the UK activates Article 50 and is immediately confronted with immovable demands of the EU that do not comport with the due status of the Snowflake Kingdom — particularly the expected €60bn bill for outstanding financial obligations — and the negotiations stall. The tabloids will go nuclear, and turn their wrath on the European foreigners who are still enjoying her majesty’s hospitality.

But now Britain has just discovered a trick long known to deadbeats everywhere for escaping financial obligations: You flee the country, and so evade the jurisdiction of the courts. Such a simple idea, they wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner:

The EU cannot enforce a penny of a possible €60bn divorce bill if Britain crashes out of the bloc without an agreement, according to a report by a Lords committee…

“We conclude that if agreement is not reached, all EU law — including provisions concerning ongoing financial contributions . . . will cease to apply and the UK would be subject to no enforceable obligation to make any financial contribution at all.”

As part of the scheme, Great Britain will move to the Caribbean in the middle of the night, leaving no forwarding address. Seriously, is this intended to frighten the Europeans into offering better terms? It seems more likely to convince them that there is no use to making any reasonable offer to a UK that can’t be counted on to honour the spirit of any agreement, or even basic norms of decent behaviour. (Recall that before there was Brexit there was Grexit, threatened by the failure of Greece to meet its international financial obligations.)

But now the chancellor tells us

If there is anybody in the European Union who thinks that if we don’t do a deal with the European Union, if we don’t continue to work closely together, Britain will simply slink off as a wounded animal, that is not going to happen.

I can reassure the chancellor that no one else in Europe thinks of Britain with such bathos. In any case,

British people have a great fighting spirit and we will fight back. We will forge new trade deals around the world. We will build our business globally. We will go on from strength to strength and we will do whatever we need to do to make the British economy competitive and to make sure that this country has a great and successful future.

Apparently they’re going to threaten to cut off exports to the continent of tough platitudes, which seems to be the only industry in which this country is still world-leading. (Though if France asserts appellation d’origine controlée to restrict use of the cliché, it could doom the whole British diplomatic effort.)

The government’s negotiating posture reminds me of the famous scene in the film The Usual Suspects, where the gangster Kaiser Sose is confronted with opponents who have taken his family hostage, and he responds by shooting them himself, just to prove that he can’t be pressured.

 


Friends like these

I was commenting recently on Donald Trump’s tendency to describe himself in superlatives, which expresses itself particularly in his verbal tic of exaggerated protestations of friendship for groups of people that he actively despises. This is not a new pattern. I just came across this description of Trump’s testimony to Congress nearly a quarter century ago, at a time when he was trying to stymie American Indian competition to his Atlantic City casinos:

Testifying before a congressional committee in 1993, he began with his rote protestations of friendship. “Nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump.” He then proceeded to worry that the tribes would prove unable to fend off gangsters. “There is no way Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob … It will be the biggest scandal ever, the biggest since Al Capone … An Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation? It’s unbelievable to me.”

Trump poured money into a shell group called the New York Institute for Law and Society. The group existed solely to publish ads smearing his potential Indian competition. Under dark photos of needles and other junkie paraphernalia, the group asserted, “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented.” (It wasn’t.) “Are these the new neighbors we want?”

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.