If you leave the world’s largest free trade area because you believe in free trade, you are bound to confuse people. Brexit faces grave difficulties of substance, but it also has a brand problem.
This struck me last weekend at the Villa d’Este, a 16th-century luxury hotel by the shore of Lake Como. It is the setting for the Ambrosetti Forum, Italy’s closest equivalent to Davos. Italian and European policymakers, with a sprinkling of technocrats and politicians from the US and Asia, gather there to reflect on the state of the world and discuss ways to improve it.
Brexit is a tough sell to such people, who mostly believe in the economic and political cause of the EU, but the difficulty runs deeper. They struggle even to grasp what Eurosceptics such as David Davis, Brexit secretary, want. Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart, remarked that British people had yet to be “educated” in what Brexit involves; the same might be said of everyone else.
It was epitomised by a quiz asking the participants what most worried them in the next year. Alongside the possibility of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, the options included “nationalism and protectionism eg Trump, Brexit”. Niall Ferguson, the Remainer turned Brexiter author and academic, protested that protectionism was “the last thing” Brexit was about, but few present seemed convinced by his words. Donald Trump is a master of simplicity and it is easy to understand what the US president thinks. The same goes for Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom party, who told the forum that EU federalism was “my nightmare” and lambasted its “enmity towards patriotism”. Brexit is an enigma: what does it mean, if not turning inward?
The prevailing mood was captured by Mario Monti, former prime minister of Italy, who noted that Europeans had grown up admiring the Anglo-Saxon world’s “pragmatism, rationality and its sophisticated connection of research to policy” and had “become adult” by learning from it. Now the US and UK seemed to be regressing, EU countries felt “more lonely in the world”.
Express such sentiments in the UK these days and ardent Brexiters tend to accuse you of being an arrogant “Remoaner”, instructing you to be patriotic and to get behind Brexit. The trouble is, nobody is forced to obey. Adopting a similar hectoring attitude to the rest of the world is like blaming customers for not understanding, liking or buying your fancy product.
This is more than a matter of national pride: having a strategy that others understand would make it easier to strike trade deals and co-operative arrangements on defence and security. At the moment Brexit appeals viscerally to 52 per cent in a domestic market of 66m, but does not export well.
The value of an appealing brand was shown in an academic experiment in which 67 people were asked to rate Coca-Cola against Pepsiin blind tests and when their cups were labelled. They also submitted to blind and identified taste tests as their brains were scanned.
The study found that knowing the brand “had a dramatic effect on expressed behavioural preferences and on measured brain responses”. In short, telling people they were drinking Coke not only increased their enjoyment but activated parts of their brains that influence behaviour based on mood.
Coke has had since 1886 to develop its identity, and to associate the formula with a jolly Santa Claus dressed in red, while Brexit is an untested concept. The EU has a comparative advantage: whatever the financial crisis revealed about the structural flaws in the eurozone, it is associated with rising wealth and continental peace since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
Theresa May, UK prime minister, has relied on the tagline “Brexit means Brexit”, but its dogged opacity would not win any advertising awards. One difficulty is the ambiguity of the idea itself, as shown during the Brexit referendum. The official Vote Leave campaign was dominated by Tory free marketers and classical liberals, while the rival Leave.EU group emphasised curbs on immigration.
Since then, the brute clarity of the latter has overpowered the idealistic fervour of the former. Mrs May tried to portray Britain as “a great global nation that is respected around the world” in her Lancaster House speech in January. Mr Davis insisted this month that it was “liberal and international in both temperament and outlook”. The brand, though, is weak and confused.
Were I a consultant, I would recommend pausing a while and hoping that talks with the EU lead to a transition deal, while showing that the UK remains open to migration. Then it could be time to relaunch Brexit Britain as an entrepreneurial, innovative country that prefers risk-taking (and goodness knows, Brexit is a risk) to the EU’s steady incumbent corporatism.
It might evoke grudging respect, in contrast to the baffled offence that Brexit now causes. Or the UK could abandon the whole idea as a marketing disaster, akin to the launch of New Coke in 1985, and return to EU Classic. Coca-Cola went back to its original cola formula two months later with the slogan: “Red, White and You”. Red, White and EU would have a ring to it.