“Oh what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive.”
Britain has deceived itself about the EU for decades. A list of all its self-deceptions would be interminable but here are some:-
- The Common Market will never get off the ground / be important.
- We can set up or belong to a rival organisation.
- We don’t need to belong.
- We do need to belong and they will be desperate to have us.
- We are joining a market only and this has no political implications.
- We will be able to play France off against Germany and vice versa.
- We can reform it from within.
- We will be at the heart of Europe.
- Monetary union will fail.
- Enlargement to the East will be a bulwark against centralisation.
- We are the second biggest contributor. They must listen to us.
- A single market has no political implications.
- Outside the EU we will be free to do what we want.
- They need us more than we need them.
- We are their biggest market. Of course, we’ll get a good deal, the easiest trade deal in history.
- They will blink at the last minute; it’s the EU way.
- A no deal exit will harm them more than us.
- The EU is a declining market for us. We are better off making trade deals with other countries.
- By voting to leave we are taking back control
And so on. We are deceiving ourselves now in imagining that the EU will ignore its interests to accommodate the manoeuvrings of our Parliament. Indeed, rather than focus – as the government appears intent on doing – on the wickedness (or otherwise) of the Speaker or on persuading the DUP (the DUP in the Government’s imagination being always on the brink of agreeing) or on finding some arcane Parliamentary procedure to bore MPs into voting for the transitional agreement, it ought to look across the Channel and listen to what EU Heads of Government and Barnier are saying.
And the message is clear. If Britain wants an extension to Article 50 it needs to be clear about what that extension is for. It doesn’t want to hear a cry for help from May. Or waffle. Or claims that if only there were more time the Withdrawal Agreement would pass. Or yet another demand for the backstop to be changed or removed. What, exactly, can Britain offer to make it in the EU’s interests to grant an extension?
Well, there is one obvious answer. The EU does not want the consequences of a messy departure by Britain. However many preparations it makes, this will be a shock, one borne by some countries more than others. The consequences of such an economic shock cannot easily be predicted and could be far-reaching.
At best, it is a nuisance which the EU does not need at a time when many of its other members have their own political turmoil, economic growth is anaemic, and the US and Russia are unpredictable allies / neighbours. But the EU will not pay any price to avoid this, no matter how often some in Britain say that it should.
Britain’s political class seems divided between those who think that saying that they don’t want a No Deal exit will be enough to make it disappear and those airily handwaving away any concerns with such an exit as if these are made up by those out to get us.
Neither group seems to have wondered what other countries will think of a Britain which causes an economic shock through a failure to make up its mind or to act on its apparent decisions.
However difficult a messy exit may be for the EU, it will likely be worse for the UK. Not just in the short-term but in the long-term, in how other countries, beyond the EU, will view Britain. It has not earned any credit in the manner of its leaving.
What might the EU want in return for an extension? There are three options:-
- A General Election. This might change the government or the Parliamentary arithmetic and allow the WA to be agreed. More likely, it will not. An increased majority for the Tories – far less likely than the Tories seem to think – might simply increase the number of MPs willing to ignore May and her deal. A new government might not have a working majority, might demand fresh negotiations, be equally incapable of agreement or of imposing its will on Parliament and might raise new concerns for the EU. There is no certainty for the EU in a General Election.
- Fresh negotiations with different or no red lines. Starting the whole process again. Most unlikely with the current government and Parliament. And equally uncertain and time-consuming for the EU. Why would they want to have this running sore within the EU?
- A new referendum: to determine whether the voters are willing to go ahead with Leave on the basis of the current WA – and its implications for any future trade deal. Or not. From the EU’s perspective, a referendum making it a choice between Leave on the agreed terms and Remain on current terms is clear. It allows for the possibility of a different answer now and one which is in the EU’s long-term interests. Whatever the frustrations caused by the last few months, for the EU to lose Britain is a serious failure and weakens both the EU and Britain.
Such a choice raises obvious political difficulties here. The EU may no longer care about those. It may not want to make it obvious that it has imposed such a choice but may also worry that, unless it makes this crystal clear, Mrs May won’t understand that Britain is asking the EU for a favour and will have to do what it is told. (Mrs May is not just nebulous in what she says to the EU but also in what she says to Parliament about what the EU has said to her. Trust in her is low.)
Even at the risk of facing yet more criticism from those who hate the EU, it may now prefer to force Britain to make a clear choice between the only two realistic choices it has, if it wants an extension from the EU. It may want to make it brutally clear to Britain how much it is deceiving itself in thinking that a slogan (“Take Back Control”) is a substitute for a properly thought out strategy and policy.
But the real risk may well be that the EU no longer wants Britain back, that what it has seen of Britain – in close up – over the last two years and particularly over the last few months has saddened, angered and infuriated it so much, its patience has been so exhausted, that it would prefer to take the hit of a messy exit rather than accommodate Britain any more, other than on the EU’s own terms.
It may decide that it may as well live up to the caricature that Eurosceptics have always had of it and impose its will on Britain. It may feel that Britain’s self-delusions about what it can demand or expect as a departing member – and thereafter as a third country – need to be shattered rather than indulged. If Britain does not wish to use the only option it now has available to it – revocation – then it should not be surprised if others will determine what it can do. Britain may be about to learn what being a vassal state really means.