Britain has turned the tide in Europe
Almost everyone I meet seems to have a personal plan for Brexit. Even some friends who voted Remain have interesting ideas for it. I feel embarrassed that this column has not yet worked up its own blueprint. My excuse is that I am still trying to get an overall sense of what is happening. Obviously the details matter. For example, how can the City of London obtain the equivalent of “passporting”?
The British government has five “work streams” and numerous departments wrestling with such matters. But these questions can only be answered if we can see what the whole thing is about. If we do that, some of the trickiest questions start to answer themselves. Not long after Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, the legendary judge Lord Denning gave a famous description of how everything had changed: “When we come to matters with a European element, the treaty is like an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back.”
He was right. Politically, as well as legally, this movement in one direction was the most powerful thing about “Europe”, and was intended to be so. This is why even a leader as strong as former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had such difficulties with the European question. She was fighting against the tide.
Even in sceptical Britain, all the main political parties understood the way the tide was going. That is why being pro-Europe was seen as a necessary qualification for holding office.
Europe was the growing reality. It no longer is. By voting to leave, Britain has turned the tide. Once the flow reverses, all the old expectations are beached. You can see this already in the reaction of powerful people who argued for Remain. The great industrialists and financiers, academics and economists, the governor of the Bank of England and, come to that, Prime Minister Theresa May herself, have changed their tune since the vote. For the first time in more than 40 years, being pro-Europe is not a good career move. Now is the time to offer your services as trade negotiator, lawyer, agriculturalist etc, to the new order.
As for business, its job, once a political decision has been made, is always to work with the new reality. After June 23, the airwaves keened with the laments of the defeated prominenti. They were so shocked that they predicted instant chaos. They cast about for ways — legal challenges, new political parties, a kamikaze assault on democracy by the House of Lords — to reverse what had happened.
Three months on, these threats have not all disappeared: This month, there will be a court challenge to the use of the “royal prerogative” in triggering Article 50. Kenneth Clarke, the brave old Bourbon of Europhilia, still pledges defiance. He dismisses the referendum as “an opinion poll”, though its sample, instead of the usual 1,000 or so, was nearly 34 million. George Osborne is telling us what the British people “really” meant by their vote, as if he, who just lost, were an expert on their wishes.
But the centre of gravity has shifted, and those who want Britons to reverse the referendum resemble the League of Empire Loyalists in 1960, refusing to face the inevitability of independence. I doubt if even the Liberal Democrats will go into the next election unequivocally pledging re-entry to the European Union.
Only an economic and financial catastrophe — which, admittedly, is on the cards for the entire world — can stop Britain from leaving now. Perhaps not even that would do so, since the EU might well be at the apex of that disaster. As people recognise that the tide has turned, life gradually becomes easier. This is not, after all, 1940. Britain is not facing an implacable enemy. Its desire to recover control of its money, borders and laws contains no hostile intent against its neighbours. Britain wants the closest relation with them compatible with being a sovereign country.
One often hears that the EU cannot let Britain get away with a deal which is as good as, or better than, EU membership: The EU has to punish Britain in order to prevent other countries from defecting. Some continental politicians certainly feel that way. This is a particularly strong view within the European Commission (EC), whose leaders tend to see themselves like the Guardian Council that still punishes traitors to the Iranian revolution. But the turn of the tide affects the rest of the EU as well as us. After the Brexit vote, there was indeed the slump in the stock market that Remainers had predicted — but in Italy, not London.
Given popular anxiety on Europe, is it likely that free movement can survive unqualified across the EU? If the second biggest nation in the Union has just defied a campaign based on fear and voted to leave, is it sensible for EU leaders to use threats of what might happen to other member states if they leave as the main incentive to stay? The crisis of the euro has made many European peoples angry at being bullied, and it has weakened the bullies too.
In Greece, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the people queue at their ATMs to ration their money. Nobody expects her to do the same to her own people if Deutsche Bank goes bust. There is serious political advantage in countries as different as the Netherlands and Italy in questioning the European status quo. Next year’s French elections will have a strong Eurosceptic tinge.
People like EC President Jean-Claude Juncker complain about populism, but if all the European elites can offer in return is unpopulism, they will eventually lose. Even they ultimately depend upon democratic legitimacy. How much more Eurozone failure before that legitimacy is withdrawn?
So the logic of Brexit — though I admit politics often defies logic, at least in the short run — is that those involved will recognise what the turning of the tide means. Open trading arrangements between Britain and the EU are good for both, and will therefore, more or less, be achieved. The greatest advantage will tend to accrue to the side that seems more generous. Britain should be forward in guaranteeing the residence rights of all EU citizens currently living there and in reassuring EU students and visitors that they will not need visas. It should also offer tariff-free trade to the EU.
Only if they insist on imposing World Trade Organisation tariffs on Britain should the latter stick them on them. That is a strong fallback position, so Britain probably won’t have to fall back on it.
Commenting on Brexit, the Eurosceptic former cabinet minister Peter Lilley makes the distinction between decisions and negotiations, the former being the simple, key things we must have, the latter being the immensely complicated details of getting them. So far, May has avoided much discussion of either, for the understandable reason that, until she became Prime Minister, she had given no thought to the subject.
This week, in Birmingham, she addresses the troops. Most of them seem to support her, but none has had the chance to vote for her. They won’t expect to hear much about negotiations. But they — and the waiting world — will want to hear about the decisions she intends to make (yesterday, May told the BBC she will formally begin the Brexit process by the end of March 2017). Those decisions encompass, after all, Britain’s entire future as a newly free nation.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Charles Moore is an English journalist and a former editor of the Telegraph.