Theresa May says the 27 EU countries are 'lining up to oppose' Brexit Britain – has she forgotten that that's how a union works?

Here’s some perspective from a marginal Leave voter from last June (me). In the longer run it will be good for the UK to drop its illusions about Europe – and that counts for Remainer illusions as well as Brexiteer ones. The EU is an unreformable nightmare – but we will suffer the negative consequences of leaving for possibly decades to come

Sean O'Grady
Saturday 29 April 2017 10:34
Theresa May accuses remaining 27 EU members of ‘lining up to oppose’ Britain over Brexit

I know she enjoys high poll ratings, I suspect mainly because of the opposition she faces – but the Prime Minister certainly has made herself look uncharacteristically naive and foolish with her remarks about EU countries preparing to "line up to oppose us" over Brexit.

I mean, what on earth does she expect? Does she think that they will just turn round and say, “Sure, have a free trade deal, free access to the single market, special treatment for your car industry and the City of London, yes of course you can keep the two EU agencies you’ve got in the UK, you can do what you want with the Irish border and you can just leave us a tenner for the ‘divorce’ bill – and obviously we’ll accept without let or hindrance any British nationals wishing to come and work or start a business over here or British companies or banks wanting to buy their way back into the single market. Will that be all, or would you like us to send you some more Mercedes, BMWs and Audis free of charge too, just for old time’s sake?”

Maybe this what Angel Merkel means when she talked about the British having “illusions” about Brexit. I reckon she also had Sir Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn in mind, who seem to think that just by being nice (Corbyn) and ultra-clever (Starmer), they can persuade the Europeans to let us have a “pick and choose” EU deal.

At least Theresa May was realistic enough to acknowledge that that was a fantasy in her Lancaster House speech earlier in the year. It is slowly dawning even on the British centre and left that actually there may be no such thing as a “soft Brexit” by definition. This could be what Chancellor Merkel was driving at (within the confines of diplomatic language during an election contest in another country).

Theresa May says that the negotiations will be tough, but seems unwilling to understand why, if the British need a tough and strong leader (ie her) in the conference chamber, and a united saboteur-free national front on this side of the Channel, the same principle doesn’t apply “over there”.

When we used to talk to our European partners in the context of the EU, it followed an established pattern. We would always try to go over the heads of the EU institutions and speak directly to friendly and/or powerful allies in order to get our way and frustrate the most crazed of Euro-schemes. It worked more often than was given credit for – most valuably during the opt-out form the euro, but also, since abandoned, the exemption from the Social Chapter and some other special concessions.

Despite the scare stories from time to time, Brussels never did get its mitts on financial regulation, or at least in a way that would unsettle the supremacy of the City of London. The British would traditionally find a friendly, sympathetic hearing from the Netherlands, the Scandinavians, some of the Eastern Europeans and, sometimes, the Germans and the Spanish, which would help them restrain the EU Commission, the Belgians, the French and the Italians. That’s how the EU used to work for Britain.

No longer. Britain, as Chancellor Merkel was cruel enough to point out, is just another “third party” sniffing around for a trade deal. Of course we matter more to the EU than, say, Switzerland or Malawi; but the principle is the same. Crucially, we are clearly not going to be able to quietly tap up Berlin to help us out. We’re on our own, and with remarkably few cards to play.

Yes, we buy a lot of European gear – more than we export, famously – but our imports of, say, German cars are only a relatively small proportion of that industry’s EU output. Our exports of British cars to the EU are a far bigger percentage of our output – 60 per cent or so. They can hurt us a lot more than we can hurt them.

That’s true across the board. Expect them – the EU institutions and also the national leaders and parliaments – to use that brutal economic reality to maximum effect. To do so requires a unified front. It is holding far better than anyone might have expected.

The real shock, in fact, would be if the leaders of 27 sovereign states did not wish to protect their interests, and recognise that those interests are served by leveraging the muscle of the European Union, the world’s biggest trading bloc, and all that goes with it.

If we were shocked that the Spanish had the audacity to try and capitalise on Brexit by getting their hands on Gibraltar – “our best chance since 1704”, according to former Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo – then that was just incredibly stupid on the part of the British. Either that or they don’t really care about this indefensible outpost. Across the board, this unified European multinational front seems determined to prevent the British playing a game of picking off individual countries and courting allies in the talks.

Theresa May urges Labour supporters to 'lend her' their votes

A few weeks ago, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, had that hand-delivered letter from Theresa May, and he told us, almost tearfully, that “the talks that are about to start will be difficult, complex and sometimes even confrontational. There is no way around it.”

He added that: “The EU27 does not and will not pursue a punitive approach. Brexit in itself is already punitive enough”, which sums things up very well.

Here’s some perspective from a marginal Leave voter from last June (me). In the longer run it will be good for the UK to drop its illusions about Europe – and that counts for Remainer illusions as well as Brexiteer ones.

The EU was not an unalloyed benefit for Britain. It prevented the country, as it does for all its member states, from getting on and building more competitive economies to face the industrial challenge from the East. Europe is a large, rich and wondrous economic unit in many ways; it is also deeply flawed and set on a path of long-term relative economic decline. It is sadly, tragically, unreformable, with the suicidal euro single currency at its centre.

Britain can make a living outside the EU, but for many years life will be tougher and the British people worse off than if the UK had just stayed in. There will be gains in subsequent decades, but for now the pain will be severe.

In 90 seconds: Corbyn v May in final PMQs before the election

We should, as Chancellor Merkel and Donald Tusk suggest, have no illusions about that. That goes for everyone: Theresa May, and Jeremy Corbyn for that matter, should understand that the Europeans will pursue their interest as selfishly as they can. That’s their job, too. They did so when we were trying to get in; all the way from 1961 to 1972 they set down conditions that successive British prime ministers found unacceptable; or the French simply vetoed British attempts to get in. There was no love lost during that courtship. The divorce will be just as nasty.

The truth is that Theresa May and David Davis going over and talking tough, or Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer turning on the charm, will make no significant difference to a deal. That is because the other side – the EU – has such an overwhelming advantage in the negotiations because of its sheer size. Even if it did not, it won’t want to make any cushy deals with the UK that would encourage further breakaways. There will be chaos, and there will be blood: there will be a bonfire of the vanities, whoever wins on 8 June.

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