Europe has remained strong against the threat of the far-right – this makes Brexit even riskier

What will happen when the Europeans, with their newly invigorated sense of collectiveness, collide with a British government determined to give Johnny Foreigner a lesson?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A key plank in the Brexit argument has always been that the European Union cannot survive and that Britain is better off outside a doomed project.

Despite constant predictions from Eurosceptics that the Eurozone is on the brink of collapse, it continues. Even Greece has hung in there. There are genuine problems with the Eurozone’s fiscal straitjacket. And Italy is having serious problems adjusting to its lack of competitiveness vis a vis Germany (though this is similar to a problem which has existed within Italy, between North and South, since Italy was formed and Italy survives). The commitment to deep European integration remains.

Much has been made of the re-emergence in Europe of nationalism, identity politics and extremist parties in general. There are undoubtedly some ugly, divisive political parties and movements. But, in marked contrast to Britain and the USA, mainstream and outward-looking political forces have prevailed, so far: in Austria, the Netherlands and, crucially and decisively, in France. Germany remains a bastion of moderate and sensible politics despite the gamble Angela Merkel took over refugees. 

These successes could prove temporary and President Macron in particular has much to do to keep the angry fringes at bay. But it is clear that the British "establishment", no less than the Eurosceptics, has seriously underestimated the determination of continental Europeans to keep the economic and political gains from over half a century of cooperation and peace. That determination will help to frame the approach to negotiations with the UK. 

Meantime the UK electorate is coalescing around three distinct points of view. One is of the implacable Brexiteers, who currently have the wind behind them and feel vindicated by both the referendum and the adoption by the Conservatives of their hard-line, “hard” Brexit agenda. Ukip has now been assimilated into the Conservative Party, its voters and its values.

On the other side are the strong Remainers who are anxious about the future, and often angry that their sense of European identity has been taken away. Some feel cheated. Some feel helpless. Most want to retrieve the situation. They will want to express these feelings at the coming election. 

The other group, and a decisive one, are those whose approach is largely pragmatic: "we are where we are","we just want a sensible outcome", "let us get on with it." The Conservatives' appeal for a "strong mandate" and "leave it to Theresa May" plays to this audience. This group is being seduced by the argument that it is the unreasonableness of the Europeans rather than the British which is the problem to a quick and painless divorce. 

General Election polls and projections: May 11

The crass, idiotic behaviour of Jean-Claude Juncker and his side-kick, Martin Selmayr, is almost calculated to appeal to those who see Britain as a victim of bureaucratic bully-boys and makes it more likely that the Conservatives will get their expected landslide victory.  

The important question is what will happen when the Europeans with their newly invigorated sense of unity collide with a British government determined to give Johnny Foreigner a lesson. 

The Conservatives now demanding a strong personal mandate in the general election make two arguments, both highly questionable. The first is that the obstructive Continentals will somehow be impressed by the size of the Conservative majority. To the extent that they can fathom the bizarre nature of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, there is no reason to believe that they are taking this election seriously as a measure of the Prime Minister’s negotiating credibility. They see it as domestic power politics, pure and simple, and they are right.

The second point (usually argued privately rather than publicly) is that a large majority will make the Conservatives more inclined to compromise and moderation in negotiation. The opposite more likely to be the case. Ukip voters are swinging behind the Prime Minister to stop her "backsliding" and the new intake of Conservative MPs is, if anything, likely to be harder than the present lot.  

The obvious point is that the negotiating room for manoeuvre has narrowed. This centres in particular on the issue of money: the "bar bill." Until that can be settled there can be no progress on the principles, let alone the details, of a trade deal. There is a big gap between the €100bn being demanded by the EU negotiators and the €30bn or so that the British have implicitly conceded. But it is difficult to see how the British can give much more without May being devoured by her hungry, now overwhelmingly Eurosceptic, party. All the signs are that she will give priority to party unity just as the Europeans will give priority to European Union unity. 

If the talks fail at that hurdle we are in "crashing out" of the EU territory. Saner Eurosceptics are warning that "crashing out" is not a Plan B. It is a disaster scenario and mustn’t be allowed to happen. But it is potentially more of a disaster for the UK than the rest of Europe and, in the current spirit of acrimony and suspicion, the Europeans may say "so be it."   

Sir Vince Cable is a former Business Secretary and the Liberal Democrat candidate for Twickenham