It may well have passed you by, but Monday was Europe Day, and Emmanuel Macron was in the mood to get the champagne out. It marks the anniversary of the Schumann Declaration of 1950, when the French statesman Robert Schumann proposed the beginnings of what is now the European Union.
Macron, the leading continental advocate of “More Europe” pitched up at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, naturally, to make his own Macron Declaration advocating a “European political community. “This new European organization would allow democratic European nations adhering to our set of values to find a new space for political cooperation, security, cooperation in energy, transport, investment, infrastructure, and the movement of people, especially our youth,” he said.
The idea is that nations such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova could be a part of the European family with some security cooperation, even though they aren’t ready to join the EU, or even NATO, which isn’t so fussy. Perhaps mischievously, Macron thought aloud about how countries too backward to join the EU for “decades” or too silly to stay in it, such as the UK, could sit in this new outer circle.
No doubt the president is sincere in wanting a wider Europe, but one that doesn’t bring more potentially awkward members such as Hungary into the club. It also feels like a convenient way to draw the UK back into the orbit of the EU, through Gallic guile. After all, didn’t the British always complain they thought they were joining a free trade area or customs union, a loose European Community as it used to be called, and not a supranational state called the European Union? Voila! Here is your new European Community, where you can hang out with your new friends, the Ukrainians and the rest.
This attempt to pull the UK back into the framework of European cooperation may be a bit of a canard, but it would be no bad thing. If Brexit was a mistake, and if it cannot be practically undone anytime soon, then a closer, friendlier relationship with the EU might be a way to make things better.
In other words, if Macron is also hinting at a renegotiation of Brexit, albeit on his terms, it might be worth pursuing.
The question, “How’s Brexit going?” isn’t just a way of winding up the likes of Nigel Farage, but something many are wondering about. The polls suggest buyer’s remorse. There is a coalition of disquiet about Brexit. There are those who still believe in it, but think it’s been betrayed because it wasn’t final enough – “not the Brexit we voted for”. They’re not happy. There are those who never thought it was a good idea, and a growing number who are simply pragmatically disappointed and think this isn’t better than what we had before.
The better deal some of us thought might emerge from the shock of Brexit didn’t emerge, and the deal doesn’t allow the British to strike out in a new radical path, and nor does it look so attractive. So they have changed their minds. In any case, whatever the motive, the sinking feeling that Brexit was a flop reflects very badly on Boris Johnson and his party. They didn’t get Brexit “done”, and now they need to save it. To do that they will need the EU’s help.
So the Brexit project is itself in jeopardy from a public backlash. The fact that the government is still thrashing around for Brexit bonuses and passing laws to try and find them seems proof enough of failure. Appropriately, they’ve sent the new minister for Brexit Opportunities, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on a fool’s errand to discover them. The new trade deals seem paltry. They are.
People also seem to have forgotten that the UK gave a solemn undertaking under the the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to maintain a “level playing field” with the EU. We cannot lawfully reduce regulation and bureaucracy or lower standards on food, animal welfare or worker rights, if it gives the UK an unfair advantage – ie in the opinion of the EU Commission. The British bonfire of controls can be put out by a bucket of Brussels cold water anytime they like. We’re just hoping they won’t notice the stuff in the Queen’s Speech about deregulation. That is the government’s plan for growth; that dozy, stupid, Brussels bureaucrats don’t read the newspapers or go online. What a pity these complacent Eurocratic creatures only exist in the prime minister’s rich imagination, just like the straight bananas.
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Plainly, whoever is at fault, there have been “challenges” and plenty of unresolved issues around Brexit. More will emerge as the UK diverges from Single Market rules. The existing problems are bad enough: The Northern Ireland Protocol; fishing; the Channel refugee crisis; the checks and delays at Channel ports; saving Ukraine – all would benefit from Britain being “at the table”, regaining the influence it once had, and above all, rebuilding trust with the EU.
The Macron Plan is surely worth a go. Confrontation cannot work. The current moves threatened by Liz Truss to unilaterally renounce the bits of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement we don’t like is a bluff. The threat to “walk away” only works if you won’t be worse off as a result, and you mean it. The Conservative party’s track record is of caving in to Brussels and Washington when push comes to shove.
But, even if we did mean it, and quite apart from breaking an international treaty (the kind of thing Putin does), it might provoke retaliation and fresh barriers to UK exports to what is still our largest market. Even if we weren’t in a quagmire of stagflation, that would be a further act of needless self harm.
We would wish to be treated as an “equal partner” with the EU, and in terms of diplomatic etiquette the UK is, but the EU economy is about eight times the size of the UK, a precious market and source of food, components and raw materials: those are the economic realities behind the diplomacy.
We should take up Macron’s invitation because, as Volodymyr Zelensky reminds us, all wars, including trade wars, have to end with an agreement.
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