It was Napoleon who famously described the English as “a nation of shopkeepers”, not meant as a compliment, one imagines. Still, a bit rich coming from someone who sold Louisiana to the US to enrich his Treasury and help create a rival to England. The English may have paid others to do their fighting for them, usually against the French, but they have yet to sell bits of their country off. (The easily offended should look away now: dare I suggest that selling the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone to Ireland might solve quite a few problems for today’s rulers?)
Still, pragmatism is traditionally the English virtue and grand ideas are for Continentals. And yet in the tiresome to-ing and fro-ing which seem to constitute the Article 50 negotiations, a fair amount of cross-dressing is going on. It is the Europeans who are determined to get their pound of flesh, deliberately oblivious to any wider considerations for themselves (let alone Britain), and the British urging imaginative solutions and making grandiloquent statements about shared futures and challenges, seemingly untethered from any consideration – or even knowledge – of the practical realities involved in extracting a country from 43 years of EU engagement in a little over a year.
Easy to poke fun at the British position: whatever merits there may have been (and may still be) in withdrawal from an entity in which Britain has never been entirely comfortable, they have been subsumed into – and probably irretrievably tainted by – a meaningless slogan and the leadership psychodramas of the Tories. Britain needed two things only on 24 June, 2016: a sober, serious, hard-working, competent, details-obsessed analysis of the choices, the trade-offs, the costs, the timings and politicians with the ability, courage and authority needed to develop and explain to British voters, all of them, and the EU a coherent, fair-minded and realistic policy for how to implement the public’s decision. It got neither.
And the EU needed this too. Easy for their politicians to look on in wonder, bewilderment and contempt. But let’s poke fun at them for a bit: a big, serious, important country in which many EU citizens work and live decided after 43 years of the EU experience to reject it. This is on any reading a failure for – and by – the EU, however much they may choose to view it insouciantly as British eccentricity.
It is a failure because the EU – for all its very English talk of clubs and rules and membership – has always been an evolving organisation. And it should have been one capable of and willing to evolve into something where Britain felt comfortable and valued. But it has been one which never fully understood Britain’s different approach (history, law, view of the nation state, memory of WW2) and never really understood the need to adapt itself to make Britain more at ease within it or and indeed learn from it (aided by Britain’s begrudging approach to the whole project throughout).
It remained a Franco-German marriage throughout. This has been one of the EU’s strengths but also one of its weaknesses, particularly as it expanded. The Franco-German experience of WW2 and its aftermath and approach to politics, to law, to the role of state, to the balance between state and individual is not that of Britain. But is not that of Eastern European countries either and there are already signs of the stresses this is causing in Poland and Hungary and their reactions to the EU’s attempts to deal with migration from outside its borders.
A wiser EU would understand that the larger an organisation gets the more flexibility and emotional intelligence is needed. It is, sadly, doing the precise opposite – at least as evidenced by Juncker’s latest speech. A wiser EU would understand that the nexus which created it in the 1950’s needs changing in the 2010’s. (One of the ironies of last year’s vote is that it will likely entrench French uniform top down etatisme within the EU, rather than dissipate it.)
A wiser EU would understand that a Britain leaving in chaos will do nothing for the EU’s image or claim that it is a force for stability. Britain never has been, is not now and will not be any old third country. Barnier’s statement that there is no alternative to the Canada or Norway options is the auditor’s answer, looking at what is not at what might be. Why shouldn’t there be a different arrangement for an ex-member? It is after all precisely what the EU is seeking for its own citizens in Britain, a special position for EU citizens which they do not get in Canada. It is not just Britain which likes cherry-picking.
And now? Whatever happens post-March 2019 the EU will still be there. Britain will still be here. We still need to establish a working relationship. Something more than simply a trade deal. A European strategy for how we interact with and deal with a powerful, united neighbour – whether it is a unitary state, a federal state, a collection of states or some other combination.
This is the perennial question of British foreign policy and the Brexiteers’ delusion is to imagine that removal of ECJ jurisdiction, say, or controls over who comes here from Romania resolve it. How the EU interacts with Britain is – or ought to be – also a question the EU should be considering, beyond the mean-spirited “Britain will regret it” response by Juncker. Only President Macron has given an indication of even beginning to address this.
And in developing such a strategy, it should not be beyond the wit of those with big dreams for Britain and Europe to come up with an arrangement, a structure, an association in which both Britain, the Eurozone and those EU states outside the euro could happily co-exist, much as those with similar dreams came up with the original idea decades ago.
The chances of this happening in the immediate future are, I realise, the same as the likelihood of me winning next year’s London Marathon ie zero. Still, even in politics “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” I may be a dreamer. But I hope I’m not the only one.
Time for new dreams and fresh thinking.