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.
You want a one-sentence explanation for the chaos in our politics, the breakdown of our party system, the shenanigans at Westminster? OK, here it is. It’s important, so I’ll put it in the original French first.
“J’aurais réussi ma mission si, à la fin, le deal est tellement dur pour les Britanniques qu’ils préféront rester dans l’Union.”
In English: “I’ll have done my job if, in the end, the deal is so tough on the British that they’d prefer to stay in the EU”.
The speaker, as you have probably guessed, is Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. He is reported in the French current affairs weekly Le Point as having spoken those words to EU leaders in 2016. The article adds that most of the leaders shared his view, as well as that of Jean-Claude Juncker, who said that Brexit must be a form of “punishment” for deserters.
There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the quotation. It accords with everything the EU has said and done since the referendum result was announced. Brussels negotiators have dragged their feet over the smallest things, while all the time publicly telling us that “the clock is ticking”. They have made a series of demands that they know to be outrageous, and that they would never dream of making of any other country, including a period of non-voting membership, the regulatory annexation of Northern Ireland and EU control of our trade policy after we leave. As Donald Tusk put it, quite overtly, in the aftermath of Parliament’s rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement last week, “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” Got that? The British people may have voted to leave, but we have made all the alternatives so unappealing that they’ll simply have to back down.
The normal British reaction to such blackmail would be to bridle at the threat and dig in in defence of democracy. In a healthy polity, even those who had voted Remain would be appalled by the bullying tone, and would rally around a policy that honoured the referendum result.
But our polity is far from healthy at present. In the debilitating culture war that followed the referendum, plenty of British politicians and commentators were determined to side with Brussels, however unreasonable its demands. Although many Remainers accepted the referendum result in good faith, some Europhile peers, MPs and businessmen were determined to overturn it. They therefore lined up behind even the most preposterous EU positions, because they shared the goal of making Brexit so painful that Britain would drop the whole idea.
They didn’t put it that way, of course, at least not in public. Instead, they would typically say things like, “The EU has to follow its own rules, you can’t enjoy the privileges of the club without being a member, what else did you Eurosceptics expect?”
The notion that the EU is simply following its own rules is almost too silly to merit refutation. The EU rarely fusses about its rules (qv deficits, bailouts etc) and it certainly isn’t doing so here. It refused to offer either the close relationship that it has with Norway or Switzerland (the EU never asked them to join the customs union), or the simple trade deal that it has with Canada (it did not demand regulatory control of New Brunswick). Had any other country made the offer that Britain made at Salzburg last summer, namely to match EU environmental and labour laws, unilaterally adopt its standards on physical goods and pay for the privilege – Brussels officials would have snapped it up incredulously. But, of course, the aim was not to get the best deal for the 27. It was to come up with something “tellement dur pour les Britanniques qu’ils préféront rester dans l’Union.”
If you have any doubts, look at the deal that the UK struck with Switzerland last month. Known by officials as “mind the gap”, it ensures that relations between the two countries will not be prejudiced, even in a no-deal Brexit. Five sectoral accords, covering aviation, ground transport, free trade, financial services and citizens’ rights, will ensure continuity in all circumstances. That’s how straightforward things can be with goodwill on both sides.
Sadly, our negotiators never faced up to the fact that Brussels did not want a mutually beneficial deal. Eurocrats could hardly have been clearer. Theresa May kept saying she wanted the EU to succeed; her EU counterparts kept responding that they wanted Brexit to fail. And yet, absurdly, we pursued a strategy of being nice in the hope that our goodwill might be reciprocated. We agreed to the EU’s sequencing, we wrote a cheque with no trade deal in return, we accepted non-voting membership (the “implementation period”, though no one now pretends there will be anything to implement), we swallowed the backstop. In each case, the EU pocketed the concession without softening.
So what now? We have stupidly weakened our position over the past 30 months, but our least bad option is clear enough. We should scrap the backstop, propose an alternative legal guarantee against physical infrastructure at the Irish border, and ratify the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU might refuse to reciprocate, of course. It would be an odd decision – if the backstop is off the table, you’d think that agreeing the other bits, such as reciprocal citizens’ rights, would be uncontentious – but the Barnier doctrine may well require Brussels to inflict needless disruption on all sides rather than allow a cordial Brexit. If so, it would be final, irrefutable proof that the EU is uninterested in the welfare of its peoples, having elevated closer union to the status of a religious dogma. Could anyone, in those circumstances, doubt that we were right to leave?