Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is “What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit”.
I keep being told by half-clever pundits that Theresa May was never a Remainer in her heart. Some even imply that the Prime Minister privately voted Leave.
Such stories are utter tripe. I know several people who tried to convince the then Home Secretary to come out against EU membership, and who got nowhere. In private, as well as in public, Theresa May made a pragmatic case for Remain. She is, though, a sincere democrat. Once the country had voted, she understood that there was no point in sulking. The worst possible approach, as she was well aware, would be to go about Brexit peevishly or half-heartedly.
This point is worth reiterating, partly because the insinuations are a wholly unjustified attempt to cast doubt on May’s integrity, and partly because an absurd narrative is being built up around the notion that she is some sort of fanatical Brexiteer. Nick Clegg talks of a “Brexit-at-all-costs government”, Nicola Sturgeon of “hard Tory Brexit”. They, like the Labour front bench, want us to think that the country is in the hands of doctrinaire Eurosceptics. So it’s worth reminding ourselves that the Prime Minister, three quarters of her Cabinet and two-thirds of her MPs campaigned to stay in the EU. In accepting the people’s verdict, they are being the opposite of doctrinaire.
So why, some Remainers ask, the tough talk on immigration? Why the readiness to walk away from a trade deal rather than compromise on free movement? Well, listen to what the Prime Minister is actually saying, rather than to what some Remainers imagine her to be saying. She has made clear that she wants and expects a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU, but that she’d rather have no deal than a bad deal. That’s surely the most obvious, almost banal, of positions.
I argued throughout the campaign that we could and should retain free trade with the EU, based on zero tariffs and the mutual recognition of standards. I still think this is overwhelmingly the likeliest outcome. Although some British commentators are in a competitive moan-fest about how dreadful things will be, I haven’t heard a single politician on either side of the Channel calling for trade barriers.
Still, it would be extraordinary – inexcusable, indeed – for May to go into the talks without a bottom line. If, for example, the rest of the EU really were to insist on a £53 billion upfront exit fee before trade talks could begin, she would quite rightly weigh that up against the cost of £5.2 billion in tariffs under WTO rules and conclude that we’d be better off with a third-country status, such as is held by the United States or Australia.
The Prime Minister’s attitude to the rest of the EU is co-operative and friendly. She misses no opportunity to say that Britain will be the EU’s closest ally. She wants a trade deal that will, in effect, keep most of the existing economic arrangements in place. And she seems to be feeling her way toward a reasonable compromise on immigration, whereby EU nationals would be able to come to the UK on five-year work visas, though without an automatic entitlement to in-work benefits.
If you’re looking for a truly doctrinaire position, look across the Channel. EU leaders have agreed a line, which they keep repeating, to the effect that the UK must not be better off in future than it is now. That’s a doubly revealing stance. First, it suggests that, other things being equal, leaving the EU will make a country better off – except in so far as Brussels deliberately seeks to damage it.
Second, it shows that the EU isn’t really about the prosperity of its members. After all, why shouldn’t the other 27 states, as well as Britain, aim to get a better deal than they have now? Almost every electorate in Europe would, for example, prefer what May is proposing on migration – freedom of labour subject to ultimate national control, and without automatic welfare rights – to what they have now. So why not let them have it? Because the EU elevates closer integration over the economic interests of its member states, obviously. That attitude – the truly dogmatic attitude – is why the euro exists.
And that attitude, ultimately, is why Britain is leaving. It is tempting to look for long-term explanations for big events, and many pundits, having failed to see Brexit coming, were soon telling us that it had been “all about” populist anger, or immigration or whatever. In truth, things usually have a more immediate cause. Brexit was prompted, as those involved with the process now admit, by David Cameron’s failure to come back from Brussels with any powers returned.
Until February 2016, opinion polls were finely balanced – at least when people were offered a binary in-or-out choice. Throw in a middle option, a looser form of membership, and it commanded the support of around 70 per cent of voters. Had Cameron been able to come back with such a deal – had he repatriated just one or two powers, and thereby set a precedent – he’d have won.
Yet the EU could not bring itself to deviate from ever-closer union, even if that meant losing its second largest financial contributor. Which is, of course, its right. It’s just that that inflexibility explains why Brexit was both inevitable and correct. Britain has always wanted a deal with the rest of the EU based on trade and co-operation, not political amalgamation. Last year, we learned that such a deal could not be had while we were members, and that we must instead seek it from the outside. Which is precisely what we are now doing.