James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
British observers naturally obsess about what the embryonic Brexit talks signify for Britain.
Do delays to any trade deals mean we’re not as economically attractive as we thought? Do the public desires of the Spanish to take back Gibraltar suggest we’re not taken seriously militarily? Are we becoming diplomatically isolated?
How the talks proceed and conclude will say a lot about who we are as a country. But they’ll also say a lot about the EU. The world will be watching the European Commission and the member states just as much as they’ll be watching Britain.
What is the world learning about the EU? It’s too early to draw hard conclusions, but observers might draw some tentative first impressions.
Firstly, despite the shock Brexit administered to the EU system, it looks like business as usual for those running the EU. The British vote and the ensuing crisis gave European leaders the option to pursue a more flexible arrangement, one that might have suited not just British voters but others across Europe too – particularly on the hugely contentious issues of free movement and welfare.
Instead, the message is coming out from Europe that things are fine as they are. No country will be allowed to cherry pick access to the Single Market, and the key pillars of the Single Market will remain untouched.
Holland mercifully dodged the appalling Geert Wilders this time and French voters look set to reject Marine Le Pen. Without any reform, however, it’s surely possible populist leaders will successfully tap into to voter concerns about these issues. The result will be ugly for all.
Secondly, despite the EU’s aspiration to secure greater political and economic unity, it also looks like the EU continues to remain in thrall to the petty preoccupations of its members.
In suggesting no UK-EU deal would apply to Gibraltar without Spanish approval, the EU has shown that it’s prepared to jeopardise a deal that would obviously be in Europe’s interest because of one country’s narrow, nationalist concerns. This follows the incredible difficultly that Canada had in securing a trade deal with the EU because of the concerns of one Belgian region. It risks showing the world that it is incapable of sensible, serious action.
Thirdly, it also appears that the EU continues to have an ambiguous attitude towards security. US politicians and the public have become increasingly agitated with European NATO members’ unwillingness to spend sufficient sums on defence – leaving, in American eyes, their taxpayers paying for European defence commitments while European Governments pour money into generous welfare systems.
The British position is different. We are a European power, and European security is a British duty and in the British national interest. But it’s reasonable for Britain, with the highest defence spending in Europe, to expect economic cooperation in return – not with the same conditions as before, but with a positive deal. Dismissing this as “blackmail” suggests some European politicians don’t take security seriously.
Pro-remain politicians and commentators are asking questions about Britain’s capacity to survive outside the EU and what foreign observers will think about us as we make our way through the exit door. This is reasonable. But by ignoring what the rest of the world might think about Europe at the same time, they’re missing the full picture. Again.