The EU apparat isn’t interested in a mutually beneficial deal with Britain. It would rather see all sides suffer than watch Brexit succeed. That is the only possible interpretation to put on recent events.
Try a thought experiment. Imagine any other potential trading partner – Japan, say – making the offer that the United Kingdom made at Salzburg. Picture, if you can, Japanese negotiators promising their Brussels counterparts that they would unilaterally adopt European goods standards, align their labour and environmental laws with the EU’s in perpetuity, contribute to Europe’s security and pay for the privilege.
We know what Eurocrats’ reaction would be. “Quick”, they would exclaim, their voices trembling with excitement, “sign on the dotted line before they come to their senses!”
So how are we to explain their response to the UK’s proposals? What are we to make of Donald Tusk’s unstatesmanlike and ungallant trolling of our prime minister? Why, when Theresa May had gone as far as any British leader could have gone to accommodate his concerns – arguably further – was he so hostile? And why did the 27 governments, most of whom don’t want a complete breakdown, go along with him?
"We are a bloody-minded people. When someone asks us the same question again, we repeat ourselves with added emphasis"
There is only one answer. EU leaders calculate that, if they hang tough, we might drop the whole idea of Brexit. Hence the choreographed appeals to think again from the prime ministers of countries with strong historical claims on our affection, such as Malta and the Czech Republic.
The notion that we might come crawling back displays a colossal misreading of our character.
Where have EU leaders picked up this bizarre idea? For an answer, look at the troops of British Remainers boarding the Eurostar for Brussels every week. “Hold the line”, they tell their Brussels accomplices. “We’ll vote to extend Article 50. Labour is now committed to opposing any deal and plenty of Tories will vote with them. Keep saying no and we’ll get a second referendum.”
Their advice is almost certainly wrong. We are a bloody-minded people. When someone asks us the same question again, we repeat ourselves with added emphasis.
But that’s not what EU fonctionnaires are hearing. Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Sir Nick Clegg may be has-beens in Britain, but in Brussels they are seen as men of authority and influence. When they talk of capsizing Brexit, they are heeded. The EU, after all, is used to overturning referendum results it dislikes.
So Eurocrats stick to what they know to be an impossible demand, namely the regulatory annexation of Northern Ireland. As they see it, it’s win-win. Either the UK accepts humiliating terms, and so demonstrates that even the world’s fifth-largest economy must kowtow before the European empire (as José Manuel Barroso liked to call it). Or it refuses, suffers the trauma of economic disruption and – so they hope – has to back down.
True, the disruption would hit the 27, too; but Eurocrats don’t mind as long as Britain suffers more.
In truth, we could avert most of the trauma by unilaterally scrapping our trade barriers the day after Brexit and cutting our taxes to stimulate growth. The PM’s commitment last week to make our corporation tax the lowest in the G20 suggests that she is moving that way. But the EU reckons that there is little public appetite for deregulation.
I’m not so sure. When people think that they’re being blockaded, their mood hardens. “Blockaded” may seem an over-the-top word, but it is hard to think of what else to call a threat to refuse landing slots to our airlines, a sanction the EU has never applied to Iran or Russia.
How extraordinary, when British soldiers are patrolling the frontiers of Poland and Estonia, to hear Eurocrats openly musing about measures that stop just short of a formal declaration of hostilities.
No one in Britain should want an acrimonious breakdown. But neither can we accept the calculatedly punitive terms on offer.
Selmayr, Juncker and Barnier
Since when does the EU follow the rules? The appointment of Martin Selmayr Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo
Spare me the nonsense about how the EU is simply “following its rules”, by the way. When does it ever “follow its rules”? Over the deficits? The bailouts? The appointment of Martin Selmayr? It is currently offering us neither the tight relationship it has with Norway (which was not ordered to join the customs union) nor the simple free trade deal it has with Canada (which was not ordered to place Alberta under EU jurisdiction). This has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with browbeating.
How, then, should we respond? We can go no further with concessions; so let’s travel the other way. If the EU won’t accept the close association offered at Salzburg, let’s make progressively looser offers. If Brussels doesn’t like the proposed customs tie-up, let’s propose the same deal without it, relying instead on technology to obviate the need for border checks in Ireland. If it still won’t buy it, let’s drop the idea of alignment in goods, too.
Let’s keep taking things off the table until either the EU accepts or we are left only with such a skeleton deal as Brussels has even with unfriendly states, covering information exchanges, extradition, aviation and the like. In reality, a deal will be struck long before we get to that stage.
Every concession we have made has been pocketed without acknowledgement. We can’t keep offering more. How did Kipling put it? “The end of that game is oppression and shame, and the nation that plays it is lost”.