The EU has taken Brexit badly, but Theresa May will win in the end

The Prime Minister had a rough reception in Brussels, and it is going to get harder for her, but tough Brexit talks are not going to weaken her popularity at home

Theresa May holds a news conference after the EU summit in Brussels on Friday
Theresa May holds a news conference after the EU summit in Brussels on Friday

“There will be varying degrees of politeness. But they will not thank us and will not accommodate us.” How right Tony Blair turned out to be. He gave a speech in 2012 to try to persuade David Cameron that it was a bad idea to promise a referendum on our membership of the EU.

He failed. A few weeks later, in January 2013, Cameron delivered his speech at Bloomberg and sealed his fate. At the time, I thought most of Blair’s speech was unconvincing. A lot of it was about how the British had to agree to things we didn’t like in the EU in order to keep our place at the top table so that we could agree to more things we didn’t like.

But the one argument I found compelling was that, if Britain decided to leave, the rest of the EU would take it badly. They would feel insulted and would be inclined to be as unhelpful as possible.

And so it came to pass on Thursday when Theresa May went to Brussels for her first European Council meeting as Prime Minister. There were “varying degrees of politeness”, from the cool – giving May the last speaking slot at 1am after the dinner, like someone allowed to remind people as they put their coats on about the parking arrangements for the next meeting – to the dismissive – Jean-Claude Juncker, asked what he thought about her speech: “Pfft.”

It is going to get harder for the Prime Minister. European leaders resolutely refuse even to begin negotiations on Brexit until May has formally invoked the Article 50 process. The failure of the Canadian trade deal shows how hard it would be even if there weren’t any of the resentment from the club of which we (half of us) don’t want to be members.

EU member states – including us for the moment – have only warm feelings toward the land of maple syrup and Justin Trudeau, and yet we cannot do a deal with them because of the Walloons. The French-speaking half of Belgium, it turns out, takes a Corbynesque view of the evils of global capitalism and is seeking stronger labour, environmental and consumer protections. Because Belgium is a federal state, this means Belgium as a whole has to vote no, exercising its veto over the EU’s signature.

As Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times says, the “failure of Canada trade deal proves the Remainers’ point that negotiating an EU deal will be a nightmare and the Leavers’ point that the EU is dysfunctional”. That deal may still be rescued, but if it is so hard to do a deal with goodwill, we are about to find out what it will be like to do one without.

What is more, Theresa May needlessly weakened her position by refusing to give Parliament a vote on Article 50. In all the legal arguments over the court case that will shortly go to the Supreme Court, the political arguments have been lost. May plainly didn’t want to give Parliament a say because she thought it would erode her authority as Prime Minister – negotiating treaties being a matter for the Government rather than Parliament.

Polish woman booed on BBC question time for saying Brexit makes her feel unwelcome

That might have been a mistake. Politically, it made sense to put Article 50 to Parliament. If she had done so – and she may still have to if the Supreme Court rules against her – Parliament would vote in favour of it. There is a majority for accepting the result of the referendum in the House of Commons, and the unelected House of Lords could hardly seek to frustrate it.

Trying to preserve her right to take the decision under the royal prerogative has made her look undemocratic even as she tries to give effect to the decision of the British people in a national vote. What is more, it has encouraged the Remainers to rally round the hope that, once the British people find out just how bad leaving the EU is going to be, they will change their minds and clamour for another referendum to stay in.

I do not believe that this is going to happen. Despite May’s cool reception in Brussels on Thursday, I still think, as I argued last week, that there will be some kind of agreement. Unlike the Canadian trade deal, the Article 50 negotiation over the terms of our post-Brexit relationship with the EU will be decided by Qualified Majority Voting. No single country – or part of a federal country – will have a veto. We may not secure much, but it will be better – for both sides – than nothing. Indeed, “nothing” is the only realistic alternative.

Remainers should not fool themselves that the referendum decision can be reversed, or that the Prime Minister will lose popularity if the Brexit talks go badly. They are right to point out that there will be an economic cost to Brexit. The harder the Brexit deal, the greater the cost. Indeed it may as much as £66bn a year, as the Treasury estimated. But that is over the long term, by 2034, and it would not be the loss of money we already have, it would be how much poorer the country would be than it would otherwise have been.

The voters heard the economic argument but the majority voted to leave anyway. Some may have done so refusing to believe there would be a price to pay. But when the bill is presented – to the extent that it is noticeable at all – they will not decide they were wrong. They will decide that the EU’s attempt to punish us for leaving confirms that we were right to do so. This is one argument that Theresa May cannot lose.

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