Friday 20 October 2017

Brexit is bringing humiliation to Britain, and there is much more of it to come

It wasn’t meant to be like this. According to Brexiters, leaving the EU would be the easiest deal in history, achievable within minutes and assured by the lobbying power of German car makers and French cheese makers as an inevitable corollary of being ‘the fifth largest economy in the world’. Such claims were made not by a few fringe figures but by almost all prominent leave campaigners including present and former cabinet ministers.

Instead Theresa May is reduced to “pleading” with the EU for a deal “she can defend to British voters”. Pleading was not supposed to be the order of the day as the British lion roared again, but perhaps this word is just The Guardian ‘as usual talking the country down’? Alas, if we look at foreign news reports it seems that pleading is the least of it. Begging is how the Swiss media describe it.

This pitiful spectacle is, in any case, not really about finding a deal which May can defend to ‘British voters’. That would probably not be too hard to do, at least if May were prepared, finally, to be honest with the electorate about what Brexit means and what is and is not feasible, and where the trade-offs and incompatibilities lie. What she actually wants is something with can be defended to the ultras within her own party. And that – which is also what prevents her from being honest with the electorate – is not just difficult. It’s impossible.

There is no deal which can be defended to the ultras for the simple reason that there is no deal that they will accept. Having pushed the envelope from soft to hard Brexit they are now openly campaigning for no deal as a desirable outcome, even though, thanks to the delays of the election and the lack of planning before the Article 50 letter, negotiations have barely started; even though the talks are following the phasing entailed by Article 50 and agreed to by the British government; and even though it is internal rows within the British government which are the primary cause of the lack of progress on the phase one issues.

EU leaders may have a small degree of sympathy for May’s domestic problems – that is implicit in some of the language at the summit and in the announcement that the EU-27 will begin to talk amongst themselves about phase two (trade) issues. But the sympathy will be very limited. That is partly because they, too, know that the ultras are unappeasable. It is also because British domestic politics are no longer of great interest to the EU. In the past, when Britain was a continuing member, a recognition of our domestic political constraints did engender considerable flexibility, allowing all the numerous opt outs and special deals that Britain enjoyed. Now, the terms of engagement have changed and the EU-27 must, inevitably, focus on their own priorities not those of British politicians. If May is unable or unwilling to stand up to the ultras that is her problem.

But of course for those of us in Britain her failure to do so most certainly is our problem. This week’s begging in Brussels is just a small foretaste of a much greater national humiliation to come. By tying the fate of Brexit entirely to the minority of ultra Brexiters May has ensured that. It is important to recall that there was nothing inevitable about this. It may, politically if not legally, have been necessary to proceed with Brexit in some form because of the Referendum. It wasn’t necessary for it to be in the form that May decided it had to at the time when she still had the authority to take a more consensual line, one more respectful not just of remain voters but also of soft Brexiters.

So the stage is set for what we might call soft or hard humiliation. Either some kind of deal will be done, primarily along lines set by the EU, in which some or all of May’s red lines are breached, accompanied perhaps by either a long transition period or an extension of the Article 50 period. Those things would not, in themselves, be humiliating. They might even, in so far as the word can be applied to any form of Brexit, be relatively sensible although will entail considerable economic and geo-political costs, some of which have already been incurred. But compared with what the ultras promised it will be a humiliation and, of course, will be greeted by them as a betrayal.

Alternatively there will be no deal, and economic and social dislocation of a sort never experienced by an advanced, democratic country in peacetime. That dislocation will come partly because, as I and many, many others have repeatedly explained, the ultras’ mantra of ‘trading on WTO terms’ is meaningless. But also because if no deal really means no deal then that applies to all kinds of things which are nothing whatsoever to do with the WTO, for example air travel and medicine licensing. In this regard, ultras have started deploying two new and highly dishonest claims. One is to pretend that, somehow, WTO rules do cover non-trade things like air travel. The other is to talk of ‘no deal’ whilst also saying, as they used to about trade, that the EU is ‘bound’ to agree (i.e. do a deal on!) these non-trade matters.

In either scenario what is about to be administered is a (long) sharp lesson in reality of an order of magnitude bigger than, say, the Suez crisis. It will certainly make what for years was the line that ‘going cap in hand to the IMF’ in 1976 was a national low seem like the mildest of shames. No one should feel happy about this, for two reasons. First, obviously, because the effects of, especially, no deal are going to land very heavily on all of us, whether leavers or remainers. ‘I told you so’ will not put food on remainer tables any more than ‘we’ve taken back control’ will put it on those of leavers.

And, secondly, because history and psychology tell us that the consequences of humiliation are almost always rage and violence. Those things are never far away with Brexiters anyway – they have been quite as angry since winning the Referendum as they were before. So if the Brexit ‘patriots’ urging no deal with the EU - who are currently on every news programme, as if their views represented anything other than a small, extremist minority – get their way we can be absolutely certain that they will not take any responsibility whatsoever for the consequences. It will be, as it always is for them, the fault of others: of the EU and, closer to home, of those of us who warned them repeatedly of the national humiliation to which they are driving us. It won't be pretty.

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