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Losing the peace

May 9th, 2018

The whiff of panic is palpable among what passes for the Leave intelligentsia. Two years ago they were airily asserting that the EU needed a deal more than Britain did and that it could be done over a long lunch, with the EU paying for the post-prandial cigars.

Today, with the government boxed in on all sides, facing the prospect of either a cliff-edge Brexit for which next-to-no preparation has taken place or a customs arrangement that would hamstring Britain’s ability to make deals with other countries (an ability that Vote Leave decided during the referendum campaign was largely extraneous to campaigning needs, preferring to focus on the claimed prospect of millions of Turks descending on Britain and doubtful savings to be channelled to the NHS, but that their supporters have now decided is vital), Leavers are casting around for explanations.  

The intransigence of the EU and the treachery of Remainers are stock villains. Some of the braver Leavers occasionally suggest that poor planning by the government might be at fault. No Leavers yet seem willing to accept that their original premise was completely flawed. 

Diverting though the wailing and lamentations of these wretched souls might be, it gets us nowhere if we are trying to work out what comes next. Analysing their internal wranglings is to shine a torch of darkness on the subject. Illumination will come from elsewhere. 

For when Britain voted Leave, the EU took control. Its grip now is vice-like and the short and medium term options available to Britain are limited to those allowed by the EU. Unfortunately, the EU are not exercising their power responsibly.Their negotiators have become so absorbed by the sheer scope of their options that they are paying too little attention to their own strategy. 

What should the EU be aiming for? I suggest that it has three non-conflicting long term objectives. First, it wants to make sure that the EU’s rules retain coherence (so Britain must not be given special favours, even if they are in the short term economic interest of the EU, because they would destroy the EU’s long term stability).  Secondly, it wants as close and constructive a relationship with Britain as possible.Thirdly, if possible, it wants Britain in due course to decide that after all its interests are best served within the EU.  Either it should want Britain as part of the team again or it should want a friendly neighbour. 

But if this is the right strategy for the EU, it is not being followed.  Instead, at present, the EU negotiators appear to be prioritising nailing Britain to the floor in the short and medium term, seeking to get both small and large advantages out of the ineptness of the Leave chorus line and the paralysis of the British government. This is no doubt extremely satisfying for them, especially after the many examples of generalised hostility and gratuitous rudeness from Leave campaigners at every level. This is not good news for Britain. I suggest that it is not good news for the EU either. 

This needs some examples.  The obvious one is the decision to exclude Britain from access to parts of the Galileo project nominally on security grounds.  This decision is inexplicable except by reference to base commercial jockeying.  Even when that is taken into account, it still looks barely explicable: the EU will want access to the excellent intelligence information that Britain collects and to seek actively to drive a wedge between the two on such a sensitive subject looks as good a way as any to alienate a neighbour to the EU’s own detriment. 

There has been a fair amount of chortling among some commentators about the EU indicating that it might charge British citizens for visas.  Sure, the EU is entitled to do this.  But as a way of annoying those Britons who as a group feel better-disposed towards the EU while barely affecting those Britons who are most hostile to the EU, it could scarcely be bettered.   

The EU is evidently seeking to ensure that the UK remains in a customs union.  However, it is doing so in a manner that can at best be described as tin-eared and at worst as playing with matches in a setting that is already well-stocked with explosives.  M. Barnier has repeatedly floated the idea that Northern Ireland might be part of a customs union with the EU, with the customs barrier set in the Irish Sea. 

Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, has as a consequence described him as “not an honest broker” and said that “I don’t think he does understand the wider unionist culture of Northern Ireland.”.  On this at least, Arlene Foster is right.  If the EU is regarding the Good Friday Agreement as something that it is essential that the Brexit settlement should protect – and it should – then it should not be seeking to upend the balance between nationalists and unionists.  The EU’s touted solution would do exactly that. 

The DUP are not particularly concerned about their reputation outside Northern Ireland and do not trouble to charm the outside world.  Sitting on the Leave side of the fence, the DUP are no doubt doubly damned in the EU’s eyes.  Nevertheless, M. Barnier is being disingenuous. If he wants to argue that the UK as a whole should remain in a customs union with the EU for the foreseeable future until the Leavers or the UK government discover the spell to allow their magical thinking to be implemented, he should do so directly.   It’s a fair argument to make.  He should not be fomenting trouble in a part of the world that has already produced them in a plural and capitalised form.  Quite apart from anything else, it’s unlikely that trouble would stop at the EU border. 

Ultimately, the EU need a deal that is going to stick.  If the British government is cornered into signing a deal that its people are not prepared to live with in the long term, Britain is going to be a constant thorn in the EU’s flesh and the chances of a future reconciliation would be sharply diminished.  That doesn’t sound like particularly smart statesmanship to me.  But, sadly, that seems to be exactly what is going to happen. 

Alastair Meeks