Thursday, 22 February 2018

England’s Delusions of Grandeur Laid Bare by Brexit Wishful Thinking

With little more than a year to go before the UK leaves the European Union (EU), virtually nothing has been agreed about the shape and form of our arrangement with the EU, once we do leave. In December last year, the prime minister, Theresa May, managed to fudge together a deal, which allowed the negotiations to pass on from phase one of the talks. It started to unravel almost immediately, with British ministers saying contradictory, incompatible things.  

The second phase is about agreeing transitional arrangements for post March 2019 when the UK officially leaves the EU. Although the EU has said all along that the UK will have to follow all of the EU’s rules during this period, without having a say in them, the UK continues to want something different. The likely outcome to this that the UK will cave in at the last minute, just like May did in December, because this one probably can’t be fudged for much longer.

The third phase of the negotiations is to get agreement on our future relationship with the EU, once the transition period expires. This is the really difficult bit, and the fact that the UK has struggled to get through the first two much easier phases, doesn’t inspire much confidence for the difficult bit.

The EU says that the UK is either ‘in or out’ of the single market and customer’s union, there will be no third way, or ‘cherry picking’ of the things we like and don’t like. But this is exactly the preferred approach of the UK government. This is at least consistent, but only insofar as it is consistently unachievable. The EU must be tiring of saying that we can’t have a bespoke arrangement, but the British government never seems to tire of suggesting one.

The circular futility of the British approach is demonstrated by German Chancellor, Angel Merkel describing a conversation between herself and Theresa May, where May reportedly said to Merkel, “make me an offer” (on Brexit). Merkel replied, “you are leaving, we don’t have to offer you anything…What is it that you want?” May in true ‘Maybot’ style came back with, “make me an offer.” And so it goes on.

The truth is that certainly since last year’s general election when the Tories offered the British public the hardest of Brexits, and the public rejected it, the government has no real plan for us leaving the EU. The Tory party are so split on the issue that the government has only been kept together (sort of) by fudging issues and stating that we want things that are not offer from the EU.

Today, the most senior ministers in the UK government are meeting at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers in Buckinghamshire, perhaps late into the night, to try hammer out a unified position. It will be a complete surprise if anything realistic comes out of this meeting, bucking the trend of recent events, but time is really growing short to get some kind of agreement.

Of course, there are voices in the Tory party, 62 MPs from the strangely entitled European Research Group, chaired by chief Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, signed a letter to the prime minister, calling on her to insist on the impossible of demanding the EU give us everything we want, and urging her to walk away from the negotiations if (when) the EU refuses.

This seems to be based on some delusions of grandeur on the part of some of the English (and Welsh), a throwback to when Britain had an empire, and called the shots around the world. Those days are long gone. As the American Dean Acheson, a US Secretary of State in the 1960s said, “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” It seems we have still not in 2018.

It is high time that the prime minister showed some leadership on Brexit, and take a sensible, realistic line, rather than trying to please everyone in the Tory party, which is probably impossible anyway. It is a high risk strategy for the prime minister, as her premiership could be brought down by taking this stance, but it would likely bring some clarity to the situation. If May is challenged for the leadership of the Tory party, then she can lay out her case and others can lay out theirs.

One thing is for sure, the country can’t afford to carry on like this for much longer, with the damage to the economy steadily getting worse, and the whole Brexit issue taking up far too much of the government’s time. There are other urgent national issues to be addressed, like the pressure on the NHS. Far too much energy is wasted by the government chasing shadows and trying to appease the unappeasable.   

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