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.
Imagine that the EU were a wholly rational actor. I know, I know, but humour me. How would it go about trying to get Britain to stay? That, after all, is what EU leaders say they want. Donald Tusk has again invited us to have what he calls a change of heart. Jean-Claude Juncker says, “Our door still remains open and I hope that will be heard clearly in London.”
Alright. So how to go about it? In a logical world, the answer would be obvious. The vote in 2016 was a narrow one. In order to convince one in 50 Brits to switch, Brussels would offer a slightly looser deal. I don’t say “a better deal”. Although British Eurosceptics might see it that way, Eurocrats plainly see a more distant relationship as a worse deal for the country in question. But it seems clear that, had David Cameron been able to secure such an outcome – had he come back from the talks two years ago with any retrieval of power, however slight – he’d have won the ensuing poll.
Why did Cameron fail? Did he ask for the wrong things? Did he think he had the referendum in the bag, and so not try hard enough? Or was the fault on the other side? Did EU leaders, also taking a Remain vote for granted, see a treaty change as too much hassle? Perhaps it was an almighty muddle, with the two sides distractedly talking past each other.
There have been two insider accounts of the renegotiation: Daniel Korski and Mats Persson, who were central to the talks, have written riveting accounts of what went wrong. Both blame the failure of the renegotiation, at least in part, for the subsequent referendum result.
It’s hard to disagree. I was at that time addressing public meetings every day, and I sensed the sudden shift in mood. People were incredulous to see the British Prime Minister come back empty-handed. “If this is how we’re treated before we vote,” they reasoned, “how will we be treated if we vote to stay?” One of my fondest memories of the campaign is of a stately Tory matron telling a group of Exeter students, “If we vote Remain after this, the EU will treat us as their biatch!”
In a sense, though, it doesn’t now matter why the talks went wrong. The more interesting question is why, following a Leave vote, the EU didn’t, as many expected, fall back on offering Britain a more detached arrangement. After all, many in Brussels were calling for such an outcome long before the referendum. To federalists like Jacques Delors, associate membership for Britain was not a response to Brexit, but the preferred outcome from first principles. Last September, Guy Verhofstadt revealed that, before the vote, he had “offered to work with the UK to develop a new form of associate EU membership”.
Such a status would have carried a majority in 2016, and almost certainly would today. But it is not on offer. Instead of wooing us – to borrow Tusk’s romantic metaphor for a moment – with flowers and chocolates, EU leaders have adopted a cold and injured tone. Theresa May’s repeated declarations that she wishes the EU27 well and will work for their success have never once, as far as I can see, been reciprocated. Instead, Eurocrats make little secret of wanting Britain to suffer.
If we want to come back, they say, it wouldn’t be on the basis of a looser deal, but quite the opposite. We’d have to accept the full package: the euro, military integration, no more rebate, possibly even Schengen.
How are we to explain the discrepancy between the rhetoric of open doors and open hearts and the reality of provocatively unacceptable terms? In part, we are witnessing an emotional spasm. The EU is not a rational actor. It is made up of officials who, being human, are subject to the full range of emotions. They can be hurt, affronted, vindictive, just like anyone else. On one level, they know that a close and cordial deal is in the interests of both sides. But they can’t help their passive-aggressive Tweets. They’re too upset.
To the extent that there is any strategy, it seems to be to make Brexit as difficult as possible in the hope that we might drop the whole idea. If you’re reading this in the UK, you know that that won’t happen. Parliament voted to leave by a stonking majority of 372. There is no shift in public opinion. The latest survey by Lord Ashcroft shows that, however the question is asked, a clear majority opposes a second referendum.
All human beings have a tendency to believe what they want. With Eurocrats, as with Jane Austen’s Marianne Dashwood, to wish is to hope, and to hope is to expect. A lot of Brussels functionaries cling to the idea that the Brexit vote was a bad dream from which they will soon wake. They are, sadly, encouraged in that belief by the procession of British politicians who keep trooping over to propose a second referendum – Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, Andrew Adonis and, inexcusably, Nigel Farage.
Their antics won’t stop Brexit. Nor will they stop Brexit being successful: a few years from now, we’ll see how wise it was to have stepped off the conveyor-belt. But they might succeed in making the transition harder.
If, reader, you are a Eurocrat, wanting to understand why Britain remains so stubbornly wedded to Leave, consider this. For 40 years, we sought a looser deal with our neighbours, based on a common market, not a common government. In 2016, that arrangement was ruled out. Today, it is still ruled out. So, logically, the only way to secure such a deal is from the outside, as a friend and partner. We, at least, are seeking to behave as rational actors.