John Stevens is a former member of the European Parliament.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said something very interesting at yesterday’s meeting of the Commons Brexit Select Committee.
In a characteristically forthright exchange with David Davis, he revealed his conviction that rather than tolerate an implementation period during which the United Kingdom remained bound by European Union law and subject to judgements by the European Court of Justice, but without any of the influence over either of a full member state, (a status he described as of a “vassal state”) it would be more “honest” simply to extend the period of Article 50.
Leaving aside whether this is possible (in my view it would be so if the other member states approved) he raises, on the record, precisely the point made last week by Boris Johnson, off the record, to Tom Newton-Dunn in the Sun (though this was widely reported and not denied by the Foreign Secretary).
Followers of this site will not be surprised that a place of prominence has been found amongst my post-Brexit reading for Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. Milton is certainly my favourite English poet: more cultivated, more politically committed, more attuned to revolutionary times, above all more spiritual than, say, Shakespeare. And I have long held the climactic justificatory cry of Satan, in Book One: “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”, the authentic voice of Euroscepticism.
And yet now it seems Satan may have been a Remainer all along. For how else are we to interpret Rees-Mogg’s and Johnson’s entirely correct condemnation of a Brexit which simply turns us into a “rule taker” rather than a “rule maker”?
Were this outcome to be prolonged, for whatever reason, beyond the initially agreed implementation perio – which given the complexity, and thus duration, of negotiating any final trade agreement between the EU and the UK must be quite likely – then surely the most central demand of the Leave campaign in the referendum, to “take back control” would ring hollow indeed. The whole thing would have been as Newton-Dunn reported the Foreign Secretary asserting, such “a total waste of time” that “we would be better off staying”.
Whether one prefers Rees-Mogg’s characteristic emphasis on honesty, or Boris Johnson’s sense of time-wasting, their perception and concern, and above all conclusion, must be shared, one supposes, by many who voted Leave in the referendum: reason enough perhaps, were their fears to be realised, even for a second vote?
Of course, it goes without saying both statesmen are outwardly as confident, as they are inwardly determined to ensure, in their different ways, that the conclusion of the Phase Two negotiations now underway will be nothing like so abject a surrender, even if this were to mean, which must be the impeccable logic of their position, a Brexit without any trade deal with the EU, on World Trade Organisation terms alone. But will this be the view of the Government?
The clear concomitant of this readiness to rely for our economic future, if necessary, entirely upon forging new free trade arrangements beyond Europe, above all in the Anglosphere, is a reinforcement of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States of America. It is so notwithstanding the very definite difficulties posed by President Trump’s most assertive approach to, and dramatic re-alignment of, both American domestic and foreign policy, and the potentially negative impact of this upon vital British interests, both commercial and strategic.
Rees-Mogg, again characteristically, had the perception to support Donald Trump even before his election to the Presidency. Standing alongside Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, Johnson last week made the most fulsome declaration of support for the President of any European foreign minister since his election.
And again, it goes without saying that they are both right to defend the particular importance for us of the US alliance, which has for so long been the single most defining feature of our place in the world. But both should also perhaps recognise, in the light of the Brexit debate, that many Leavers, including ironically those who mirror most closely President Trump’s instinctive populist isolationism and protectionism, will see in such deference a considerable degree of rule-taking, not to say vassal-state status, which they may believe it should no longer be geopolitically necessary or viable, or even simply desirable, to tolerate, with all that might imply.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people”. At least the European Union offered us company that, however infernal to many, was at least prepared to share decision taking with us, and with whom, in many vital areas, such as finance and defence, not to mention language, we were I believe much more than merely first amongst equals. Sartre’s famous quotation comes of course in his (one act) play, “No Exit”.