In the period immediately after the Brexit referendum I often heard the line from pro-Brexit people in the UK that it would only be a matter of time before the EU would be begging the UK to somehow stay in the European Union, or at the very least that the EU would seek the closest possible relationship with the UK after Brexit. After all, these Brexiteers argued, the Irish had voted again on the Treaty of Lisbon and France and Netherlands had been accommodated after voting against the European Constitution. The last few days make me wonder if the UK side is still not fully disabused of this idea.
In reality, 10 months on from the referendum, the EU trying to keep the UK close is clearly not what has happened. There have been no such efforts from the EU side, and indeed quite the opposite – the EU position has hardened.
In the pre-Article 50 period the EU was resolute – there were to be no pre-negotiations. Those months allowed the EU to prepare its positions and build its negotiation team. The EU has then waited for Britain to come forward with some solid proposals for what it actually wants from Brexit.
The European Union has been clear about how the procedure to exit will work – three things (the exit bill, the exit terms, and citizens’ rights) have to be sorted first, before the terms of future trade can be agreed upon. If the UK does not go along with this then, tough, no trade deal, and Britain crashes out. This is exactly the line defended by Juncker at the infamous dinner with May and Davis last week in London.
This may all sound rather tough, but the EU side knows very well that a no-deal, crash-out Brexit, damages the UK far more than it damages the EU. 40-odd percent of the UK’s trade is with the rest of the EU, and about 8 percent of the rest of the EU’s trade is with the UK*. Plus in reputation terms Britain just walking away looks catastrophic to the rest of the world – if the UK leaves talks with the EU in a strop, then will the rest of the world actually really want to deal with it, trust it?
Crashing out of the EU might be an easy sell in the Daily Mail, but it will be a harder sell with Australia’s, New Zealand’s or India’s trade negotiators – countries that all trade more with the EU than they do with the UK, and see the EU as a serious and viable partner, not a crumbling mess as portrayed by UK tabloids. Also notable is that the UK seems to underestimate Juncker and Barnier – they may look dull and grey, and they may not do spin very well, but they definitely do know how to negotiate, a skill that seems lacking among the UK ministers responsible for Brexit.
Essentially the EU position towards the UK has switched since the referendum, but the British, even now, have not understood that. The May-Davis position is based on the idea that EU is going to try to hold the UK close, while the reality is increasingly that the EU is pushing the UK away. The UK left (see e.g. Paul Mason, and the Lewis-Maskell plan) seems equally confused.
To put it another way, rather than trying to douse every fire the UK caused by offering concessions and opt outs, as had been the case throughout more or less the whole of the UK’s membership, the EU’s strategy is now a different one – to build themselves a fire break between the UK and the EU to prevent further states daring to leave, and to protect the EU politically above all else.
This is the context in which Juncker’s dinner with May and Davis should be seen. The UK still assumes it can play the old game, to extract concessions, but after the Brexit referendum its leverage to do that is much reduced. When, I wonder, will that begin to dawn?
* – corrected. Initially it said EU in this sentence twice!
It seems that some people are in agreement with Ruiz Jarabo Colomer, Advocate General of the ECJ in case 274/99 “Criticism of the EU is akin to blasphemy and can be restricted without affecting freedom of speech”.
My criticisms have been primarily directed against the deceits of the British government and political class to their own people, who were told again and again it was primarily an economic project. But the deceit could not be maintained forever and the day of judgment came on June 23 last year.
I do read quotations from others, like General De Gaulle (1965) ” As for the Commission, it deserves to disappear. I want no more of Hallstein. …I want no more to do with them.. . I want no more that the French government should have to do business with these types..The problem is this mafia of supranationalists, whether commissioners, deputies or bureaucrats. They are all enemies. They have been put there byour enemies”..(from C’etait De Gaulle, Alain Peyrefitte) .
There is evidence from the early days that the Coal and Steel Community Treaty had additional secret clauses whereby France and Germany would subsidise each other’s heavy industry when in competition with Britain to knock us out.
I like to go to the fountainhead in such matters and recently interviewed Lord Walsingham, who was in the British Foreign Office in 1950 and gave a very witty, circumstantial account of the matter and how the Foreign Office worked at that time. The video is linked to the article “Witness to history”. Just Google Edward Spalton and scroll down the articles on the CIB website – unless you are of a nervous disposition!
Back in 2000, the former Italian Prime Minister and Vice Chairman of the Constitutional Convention gave an interview in La Stampa to Barbara Spinelli
“(Amato) said that however daring a political project might be… it must be hidden, camouflaged. One must act “as if” in Europe. “As if” one wanted a very few things in order to obtain a great deal. “As if” nations were to remain sovereign in order to convince them to surrender their sovereignty. The Commission in Brussels, for example, must act “as if ” it were a technical organ in order to operate like a government.
He said that sovereignty lost on a national level does not pass to any new individual. It is entrusted to a faceless entity….eventually the EU. The Union is the vanguard of this changing world . The new entity is faceless and those in command can neither be identified nor elected. . As a matter of fact the metamorphpisi is already here. All we need are a few corrections here and ther along with a great deal of cunning…”
The recent book by the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis indicates that Amato’s analysis was correct. Does anybody really want to live in such a Kafka-esque state?
It was about four years ago that colleagues in the independence movement started work on a realistic plan of of withdrawal which came to be entitled FLEXCIT. (Google). The “Hard Brexiteers” in the Conservative party are presently in the ascendant and the government appears to want to take a more difficult and confrontational route. It may be, of course, that secret negotiations have been proceeding under cover of the election and that Mrs. May could present us with a perfectly formed plan like a rabbit out of a hat – if she gets a sufficient majority. David Cameron did call her “the submarine”.! But somehow, I doubt that she is so well prepared.
Excellent article – albeit rather depressing. Also good comments, although I do apologise to our European friends for the attitude Edward Spalton and people like him. Unfortunately, the vain, ignorant and plainly delusional attitude that he exemplifies is what has gotten the UK into this horrible mess. Please be assured that not all of us on these isles are this ridiculous. Sadly, the UK has an overdue reckoning with reality on the horizon, in which it will face a painful but necessary lesson in humility and adjustment that it really is a small country, with little real economic, political or military clout – and with few friends.
Hello Everyone and thank you Matthew for the cartoons.
Not all independence campaigners think in quite that way, as I hope may be apparent from my article, linked below.. It is from September last year and I regret that Mrs May appears to be following a more radical path. Colleagues who devised this scheme for disengagement from the EU political project called it FLEXCIT and it can be Googled. One problem in dealing with the duplicitous behaviour of successive British governments is that the Official Secrets Act allows them to conceal their real intentions for thirty
years. See article at campaignforanindpenedntbritain.org.uk/europhiles-sovereign-parliament/
Edward, listen to this EU citizen. We want you gone. EU has more important things than UK to deal with and sincerely you’ve been obnoxious an a great many of us can’t wait to see the back of you. We are actually angered EU isn’t tougher with you.
@ Edward Spalton.
The European project was never based on ‘such deceit’ and it is high time that you stop lying about that.. Europe has been very clear on its intentions of an ‘ever closed union’ from the start. From 1952, the coal and steel community, from 1957 the EEC.
The deceit you talk about was entirely self-imposed. It was self-deception by people in the UK who -arrogantly- thought they could enter the EU (and it progenitors) and pervert it into another EFTA. Never mind that the EFTA really did not work, which is why the UK was abandoning that project designed to stop political unification in the first place.
Let’s see if the arrogance of the Brexit camp survives even a couple of years in the wilderness of the global economy without being on the same side as the bargaining power of the EU.
Certainly the UK population is about to get an object lesson in how grotesquely unfair the world economy is and how little real influence the UK alone has left to do anything about it.
The arrogance of the Europhiles in the British establishment is at the core of popular revulsion from the European project.
” No government dependent on a democratic vote could possibly agree in advance to the sacrifice that any adequate plan must Involve. The British people must be led slowly and unconsciously into the abandonment of their traditional economic defences”. Peter Thorneycroft, in ” Design for Europe” 1947 .
By 2000, Roy Hattersley realised it hadn’t worked. ” Not only was it wrong for us to deal superficially with what Europe involved, but we’ve paid the price for it ever since . Because every time there’s a crisis in Europe, people say, with some justification, ” Well we would not have been part of this if we’d really known the implications””.
I realised it a bit earlier in 1972 when I heard John Selwyn Gummer telling our grain trade and milling association how delighted the Commonwealth countries were to see the back of us. I knew he was lying his head off. Our New Zealand friends were far from pleased to be losing one of their best customers for milk powder- from our entry into ” Fortress Europe” for agricultural products.
Knowing that the project was based on this sort of deceit convinced me that no good for us could ever come from it. Subsequent experience has only served to confirm my view.
That said, I realise that the change of mental gear for independence campaigners from pure, determined opposition ( based on well- justified, principled detestation of subjection, deceitfully enforced – a view universally scorned by the Great and the Good) to positive engagement for a new neighbourly arrangement involves the mental equivalent of a massive gear change.
Instead of talking about the events of 1947 and 1972, perhaps you should address the problem of 44% of Britain’s export trade to the EU being subject to the external tariff. How would you justify your position to the hundreds of thousands of British workers who will see their jobs disappear or who will have wages squeezed still further as the UK desperately seeks a ‘Singapore’ type solution as a low wage tax haven.
Excellent (though depressing) summary. Saw a quote from leading EU person (think it was on FAZ but can’t find the link) that the EU sees Brexit as Lose-Lose – and that their focus is on damage limitation.
There are no good options (although perhaps still some less-bad possibilities). The EU wants a clean and quick settlement so it can move on. It isn’t trying to keep us in or even particularly close (as you say).
The EU is deeply concerned that we will use remaining time as a member to disrupt normal business in the hope of forcing concessions. Putting Davis, Fox and Johnson in charge did not fill them with any confidence that May was serious about negotiating a mutually beneficial settlement.
Sad – particularly since anyone pointing this out is now labelled a traitor, saboteur and enemy of the people.
Thank you once again for a plain and well written piece attempting to explain the obvious to the hard of hearing.
For clarity in my response here, I am a British citizen and was a Remain voter in the EU referendum of 2016.
In attempting to grasp the national mythologies that have and are fuelling Brexit 9and so much of the ‘apparent’ UK Government policy it is helpful to understand the power of non or verbally minimal communication.
Naturally, I’ve constructed something about that at
I’d be interested in any comments you might like to add.