Almost as wearisome as the endless, and largely futile, trips by Theresa May and her minions to Brussels is the jumble of obscure, and sometimes, misleading jargon used to describe the Brexit process.
Reporters find themselves negotiating a minefield of backstops, roll-overs, hard borders (or the avoidance thereof), no deal scenarios, and divorce payments.
Most of these phrases were invented to make the highly complicated stuff at least semi-comprehensible to sensible, normal people who aren’t very interested in politics. But by attempting to simplify, political leaders and reporters can end up confusing and misleading the public.
The most egregious is probably the ‘deal or no deal’ phraseology. This makes the Brexit negotiations seem like an everyday decision of whether to buy a car or a new TV.
Except that, in this case, the UK does not revert to the status quo if it chooses not to deal. Even those Brexiteers who want ‘no deal’ admit, albeit quietly, that ‘no deal’ means short-term economic disruption.
Similarly misleading is the £39 billion ‘divorce bill’. This has been reported, at least in the UK, in a way that makes it sound like the payment is a question of British goodwill, or a division of assets between two parties.
It isn’t. EU spending is based on a contract with member states and the UK will have to pay what it had committed to, with or without a Brexit deal being agreed. If it holds out on the cash, the EU and UK will probably end up in international arbitration, and the UK will lose.
A blog by Conservative MP Craig Mackinley on the Brexit Central site earlier this week was a case in point of the lack of basic understanding that this misleading phrase leads to.
Mackinley appeared to be genuinely shocked that the EU would demand the £39 billion “divorce fee” regardless of whether the two sides agree on a Withdrawal Agreement, “else future relations would be forever soured”. Well, yes. If a party reneges on a contract, that tends to be what happens. Yet dozens of UK MPs think like him.
Reporting of the eurozone crisis fell into similar traps. The misleading description of ‘bailouts’ that were, initially at least, high-interest loans re-enforced the perception of fecklessness and greed in the likes of Greece and Ireland when, in fact, over-exposed German, French and British banks were among the main beneficiaries of the emergency loans.
Untangling more than 40 years of legal and economic integration was always going to be a long and complicated process.
Having barely had any serious or honest public discourse on the EU and its functioning in a generation, Britons have subjected themselves to a crash-course in EU law. And we’re not convinced they have grasped the concept.
Reporting Article 50 talks in a way that is accessible to those outside the ‘Brussels bubble’ is almost impossible. We have to use phrases that simplify. But politicians and journalists must recognise that, if simplifying means misleading, they are doing more harm than good.
by Alexandra Brzozowski
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]