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.
It looks as if I had the Catalans completely wrong. I had assumed that the hard line taken by Madrid would boost support for independence. If I had been a previously undecided Catalan voter, I would have reacted with fury to the police brutality that accompanied the referendum. My local pride, however slight before, would have been outraged by the way in which my democratic rights were mocked. I’d have felt personally affronted by the arrest of Catalonia’s elected leaders – who, if reports are accurate, were stripped naked and locked in a police van with the Spanish national anthem blaring at full volume. Even if I had not voted for their parties, I could hardly fail to have felt the insult to all Catalans.
Then again, I am not a Catalan. Although I am pretty sure that Britons would have bridled at being denied the right to vote, Catalans appear to be reacting differently. The latest polls show a decline in support for separatist parties, as well as a decline in support for secession itself. Mariano Rajoy’s inflexibility, which struck British observers as insanely counter-productive, may in fact be working.
Catalans have the reputation in the rest of Spain of being mercantile and materialistic. To some extent, they see themselves in the same light – as modern, practical, hardworking people, who have little time for guitars or bullfights or long late lunches. (There is, of course, a great deal to be said for being mercantile and materialistic: businesspeople do more for human happiness than soldiers or politicians.) Is it possible that Catalans backed away from independence as the costs rose? That they simply didn’t want the hassle and disruption of walking away – not, at any rate, if it involved police raids and repression?
I don’t want to read too much into the polls. We should remember that opinion was finely balanced before the vote: plenty of Catalans, and not just those whose parents came from other parts of the peninsula, were happy to be Spanish. Even so, the total absence of a backlash is surprising – at least from a British perspective. We are a bloody-minded and stubborn people. We know how we’d have reacted.
The relative success of Madrid’s coercion – so far, at any rate – might help explain something else that, from a British perspective, is bewildering, namely the belief in much of Europe that we, too, might give in to bullying.
Most EU leaders oppose Brexit. Fair enough. But the idea that they can put us off it by passive-aggressive tweeting, or by demanding money, or by being unreasonable in the talks, is extraordinary. The most cursory reading of our history suggests that such behaviour makes us dig in – as, indeed, it is doing now. My colleagues in Brussels often ask me where the opinion polls are in Britain, and are incredulous when I tell them that they haven’t moved since polling day.
If the EU had really wanted Britain to reverse its decision, it would have adopted a reasonable and emollient tone. It would have explored whether, if Britain didn’t like the existing terms, a looser arrangement might have been put in place – one whereby, for example, Britain kept most of the commercial and economic aspects of membership, paying for them as now, but withdrew from the political aspects. That, indeed, was what most Euro-integrationists were calling for before our referendum was announced: a kind of associate status for Britain, that would allow the federalist countries to pursue their political union unimpeded.
Had such an offer been on the table when we voted last year, we’d have opted to stay. Had it been made after the vote, it would surely have convinced more than the two per cent who needed to switch sides. But it wasn’t. Instead, EU leaders have adopted an uncompromising tone, partly out of hurt feelings, and partly because, on some level, they still think that, if the whole business becomes disagreeable and difficult enough, we’ll drop it. How little they know us.
What is even odder is the number of British Europhiles who have adopted the same tactic: talking down our negotiators, prophesying gloom, revelling in every bit of bad news, however unrelated to Brexit. Believe me, guys, it isn’t making anyone become more pro-EU; it’s just making you look like gits.
To the extent that they have a strategy – and much of what we are seeing is an understandable emotional spasm with no very clear object – it seems to be to make Brexit as nasty and costly as possible, in the hope that we’ll give it up. The danger, of course, is that they half-succeed, encouraging Brussels hardliners in their fantasy of a reversal, and so ensuring that Brexit happens in the most ill-tempered way.
While a hard rupture would be sub-optimal, it would still be better than staying in. Last month, the World Bank said that, in the event of no trade deal beyond the minimal WTO terms, our trade with the EU would fall by two per cent. Since exports to the EU amount to 12.6 per cent of our total GDP, we’re talking about an overall loss of a quarter of one per cent. Set against our new commercial opportunities overseas, and our deregulatory opportunities at home, that doesn’t seem so bad.
To repeat, we should aim for an amicable deal. We should work hard for an outcome that serves the interests of our 27 allies as well as our own – our prosperity, after all, is enmeshed with theirs. But such a deal will happen only if everyone accepts that we are leaving. So far, they don’t.