Britain's divorce from the EU will be bitter. Yet the failure is the Europe's too.
After the referendum, an opt-out on free movement could have avoided full-scale Brexit. But both sides rejected any such compromise.
It wasn’t Britain’s absence from the EU’s birthday celebration last week that shamed me. It was the sight, while I was in Berlin, of our union flag projected on to the Brandenburg Gate. Even as Europe’s capitals stood in loyal solidarity with ours, we plotted a divorce.
The story after the referendum could have been different. Despite the narrowness of the result, there was never an attempt by Europe to persuade us to stay. It is unusual, when an unhappy partner suddenly and unexpectedly asks for a divorce, for the injured half simply to agree and instruct the lawyers.
The British trajectory towards certain departure was sealed by a Conservative party leadership contest that demanded its victor signed up to full-blooded Brexit. But the failure was Europe’s too. At first reacting in disbelief, Europe then behaved as a partner scorned. Well, then – go, it said. But you can’t expect to keep the house and the car, and there’ll be a price for this selfish separation.
Just as Europe’s unwillingness to compromise had denied David Cameron the extent of renegotiation he needed, so costing him the referendum, it would deny the possibility of change after the vote. The smart move by Brussels after the result last June would have been to propose continuing membership for Britain while allowing us to check free movement. After all, we will now control our borders anyway. Better to do so inside the club than outside.
A different prime minister – perhaps Boris Johnson – with a different leader in Europe – Nicolas Sarkozy, perhaps – might have renegotiated after the referendum. Britain, already with the special status of being outside the eurozone, could perfectly well also have been apart from free movement too – able to control migration but otherwise a full member of the EU. The British people would have got what most of them wanted: to be in the market but in control of our borders.
Sooner or later, free movement in Europe will have to be fixed. Already the Schengen agreement is fragile, suspended in some member states. The EU could not contemplate Turkey joining at some point in the future with free movement in its current form. Yet still the policy is regarded as inviolate, a fundamental but in fact latterly invented freedom of Europe.
Europe’s leaders, preoccupied with their own elections and the rise of nationalism in their backyards, find it easy to celebrate the union’s anniversary but remain unwilling to repair its structural flaws. It still doesn’t occur to them that the way to hold their project together is to allow more flexibility. Instead, unrestrained by the UK, they will instinctively reach for deeper integration.
The catechism of ever closer union is just one sign of the near-religious zealotry that has bedevilled both sides of the debate. The ideology of deeper European integration has created its nemesis in Britain: the doctrine of hard Brexit. In Britain, those who express concerns are treated as heretics who must recant and swear adherence to the new faith. Doubting is subverting, questioning is remoaning. All will be well, because we believe it will be well.
For Brexit’s apostles Europe is not an adjacent market of 500 million people, our biggest and most important trading partner, but rather an unexploded bomb from which we should run as far away as possible. This irrational hatred drives its supporters to indefensible positions. It doesn’t matter if we have tariffs as high as 29%. No deal is a good deal, whatever the cost. In the eyes of the ideologues, any economic warning is fake news, as untrustworthy as an expert opinion.
Once our backs are safely turned on Europe, the argument goes, we can become a global nation once again. The greatest excitement is reserved for the prospect of trade deals with the old Commonwealth, especially where it is white. Inconvenient facts, such as that we do less than a 50th of our trade with Australia, or that if we lose just 10% of our trade with the EU we will need to double it with India and China to make up, are swept aside.
Global Germany does nearly three times more trade with China than we do – more even than the US does – while being a member of the EU. It seems remarkably unshackled by the “corpse” of Europe. The parody by dismayed civil servants of the Brexiteers’ project as Empire 2.0 was lethal precisely because it betrays the ideological vision.
An animated map of Europe’s changing national boundaries over a thousand years has been watched by millions of people. The story it tells, of empires rising and falling, of war and conflict, is above all the tragedy of nationalism. Yet, as the borders of central Europe have ceaselessly changed, the British Isles remained constant. So lies the difference between our country and the continent: the explanation of why, in the end, Europe values the stability of peaceful political union more than we do.
The government is now relying on a one-way bet that the electorate won’t change its mind, and that the economic warnings about a hard Brexit are wrong. Few dare question the new orthodoxy, and the retired leaders who speak out are the least persuasive. Yet it wasn’t a mere minority who declined to support the event we are all expected to celebrate on Wednesday: it was nearly half of the country. A divorce, said Margaret Atwood, is like an amputation: you survive, but there’s less of you. That won’t matter to those who will rejoice in severing us from our partners with the bloodiest fall of the blade.
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