Fighting the last but one war. The final Brexit battle approaches

Fighting the last but one war. The final Brexit battle approaches

That didn’t take long.  As soon as the Germans were eliminated, it suddenly occurred to the entire British media that “VAR” could, if you squinted at it hard enough, be read as if it were a German pronunciation of the word “war”.  Amazing, I know.  So “Don’t mention the VAR” made its way through the lower reaches of the press and swam upstream as far as the Times and the Telegraph.  Could you have imagined such wit? 

The nation remains in the thrall of its finest hour.  Football always brings it to the surface.  Films do too – Dunkirk and Darkest Hour being two recent examples where many commentators sought to make links with present day politics.  For some reason, the EU and Brexit draws out the inner dambuster as well in a remarkable number of people. 

Boris Johnson referenced punishment beatings in the manner of some World War Two movie.  The same day, David Davis opined that if the civil service could cope with World War Two, they could easily cope with Brexit.  Nigel Farage’s bus in the referendum campaign blared out “the Great Escape”.  It’s pretty unsavoury really.  Whether or not you like the EU, implicitly likening it to Nazi Germany is offensive and silly, an unceasing offline infringement of Godwin’s law.

It is also leading the Brexit spitfires to completely misunderstand the nature of the negotiation with the EU.  They visualise the Brexit process as one where Britain has strategically withdrawn from the continent, has contented itself since with probing bombing raids and hunkering down under a blitz (not forgetting to keep an eye on those treacherous Irish).  They now hope that the stresses and strains will lead to a rapid collapse of the enemy, perhaps aided by tying up German materiel in Italy. 

This isn’t a war, it’s a negotiation.  To the extent that the two sides of the negotiation are in conflict (which is not as much as the war analogies would suggest), the conflict is much closer to World War One than World War Two, and with the roles reversed.  After the initial shock, in which the Leavers took the initiative, the two sides have rapidly become entrenched, each seeking to outmanoeuvre each other and both scrapping over small patches of territories that previously would have been regarded as insignificant, with little movement.

But like Germany in 1918, Britain is now encircled, facing strategic defeat in these negotiations. It has failed to split its opponents and time is against it: no deal is far worse for Britain in the short and medium term than it is for the rest of the EU.It is reported that Theresa May’s proposals for Britain to be in the single market for goods are to be rejected by Michel Barnier before they have been presented, or even finally agreed with the Cabinet.

M. Barnier has now publicly stated that the indivisibility of the four freedoms is key for co-operation on security. Every British proposal involves a version of simultaneous cake consumption and retention on the subject of the four freedoms. In the summit declaration on Friday, the EU member states gave no hint of any movement or forbearance in Britain’s direction.The crunch point is coming.

The endgame now seems clear. In 1918, the German military decided that, rather than continue to fight a war that they were destined to lose, it was better to surrender early. Similarly, the British junkers are going to have to decide whether to seek an armistice with the EU Juncker on whatever terms the EU is willing to offer – or whether to fight to the bitter end, going down in flames.

Despite the fulminations of John Maynard Keynes, many modern historians regard the terms offered at Versailles to the defeated Germans to have been pretty reasonable.  That was not the perception of many Germans at the time, who came to believe in the “stab in the back” myth, that Germany was betrayed not defeated.  The German people refused to accept the defeat and from that refusal it inevitably followed that they would not accept the settlement.

Leavers are already remarkably free with their accusations of treachery against anyone who has the temerity to suggest even minor deviation from what they regard as the true path of Brexit.  No matter how objectively reasonable the terms that the EU might offer might be, the risk of a similar stab-in-the-back myth emerging from a Brexit Versailles settlement must be very high. 

(This risk will be especially high if an eventual settlement involves something that looks very like freedom of movement, something which there are persistent rumours that Brussels is still hoping for.  No matter how sensible or objectively desirable that might be, the referendum was fought and won on immigration controls.  If there aren’t any, the outcome will be undemocratic.)

The Government has done nothing to prepare the public for any form of major concessions.  No doubt this is a function of the fissures that criss-cross the ship of state from stem to stern.  When the choice confronting Britain finally becomes apparent (probably in October), the public mood is likely to become sulphurous. 

The outcome of that choice looks uncertain, since it is far from clear that the government will have the ability to form a view to do the deal that Theresa May would no doubt wish to do.  Prepare yourself for a volcanic autumn.  British politics look set to get still worse.

Alastair Meeks

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