The EU should listen to Theresa May to get the deal over the line

Brussels risks misreading the mood in the UK, just as it did during the 2016 referendum.

It would be understandable if EU leaders were riled. As they see it, the union has bigger concerns than Brexit. Theresa May agreed a deal and now wants changes. Brussels immediately said no. And so the clock counts down ominously to a “no-deal” Brexit in just two months.

If the EU is calculating that the UK will pull back from the no-deal brink it may be making a serious mistake. Unless the House of Commons decides to ditch Brexit altogether, it can only seek to delay. The Westminster cacophony may have obscured an important fact: the majority of MPs have repeatedly voted to leave the EU. The referendum decision drives them inexorably to that end.

Both major political parties are committed to Brexit. The campaign for a second referendum has stalled; its proponents shying away from a Commons vote last week for fear of losing badly. If Europe hoped that Brexit might be prevented, it must now see that it will not.

The UK and the EU have an unhappy history of misjudging each other. Britain did not understand the EU’s determination to protect the euro. Europe could not comprehend why David Cameron called a referendum, nor that what they offered him in the renegotiation would not be enough.

I led the Conservatives In campaign and worked fervently for Remain. I recall telling a senior German delegation in early 2016 that the renegotiation the EU was offering — especially the absence of convincing migration controls — would not be sufficient to carry my party and could threaten a Leave victory. They were incredulous. Did we not need foreign labour? Did we not understand the importance of free movement? Surely the referendum would be won regardless?

The rest is history. Of course most of the responsibility is the UK’s. But the EU made mistakes, too, misreading political currents across the Channel. They are in danger of doing so again. It is not unprecedented for member states unable to ratify a treaty to seek amendments. After rejecting the Lisbon treaty in its first referendum, Ireland secured changes via a protocol, including guarantees on its EU commissioner, abortion, taxation and military neutrality.

Mrs May is returning to Brussels not out of desire but necessity after the biggest defeat in parliamentary history. The EU should recognise the democratic realpolitik in the UK. They asked for clarity and now the House of Commons has said that it will ratify the withdrawal treaty subject to just one change. It is a significant step forward.

The request for a change to the Irish border backstop is not unreasonable, nor must it be traduced as a weakening of the UK’s commitment to avoid a hard border. Rather it is a desire to achieve that end by altered means. There is no good reason not to consider this properly.

Brussels says that the UK’s proposal for “alternative arrangements” is unclear. Yet it simultaneously says that new arrangements would be put in place on the border in the event of no-deal. This might be necessary in a matter of weeks. A replacement for the backstop will not be needed for two years, if at all.

If the backstop is needed only to ensure no hard border while a trade deal is completed, there is no reason for it to exist in perpetuity. It cannot be impossible to re-work a provision that everyone says should only be temporary so that it commands confidence on all sides. The backstop is just one element of a withdrawal treaty of more than 5,000 paragraphs which contains important measures to deliver a smooth Brexit. It would be perverse to sacrifice two years of painstaking work through intransigence over a surmountable problem.

It is probably true that no-deal will hurt the UK more than the EU. But the British public chose divorce, for richer or poorer. The EU should not risk inflicting unnecessary harm on its citizens who made no such choice. Nor is it in any shape to invite an economic blow. The eurozone’s growth is at its lowest in more than four years and Italy has just fallen into recession. It is in everyone’s interests to search for compromise.

Taking a final step to get the withdrawal agreement over the line will allow the EU and the UK to move on to what matters: negotiating a close economic, security and political partnership. The alternative, crashing out, will make a positive relationship far more problematic and foment the nationalism that pro-Europeans rightly fear. This separation is painful enough. Let us not risk making it even harder.