We are running out of time and out of clichés: level playing field, cliff-edge, car crash, last chance saloon. Boris Johnson has less than a month to choose between possible outcomes of the BREXIT negotiations: No-Deal or Bad Deal presented as a triumph of British bull-dog spirit.
There is no point in deploring political leaders’ conflation of national interest and Party interest at times like these - though they are clearly different. But in weighing up the two interests, assuming he considers interests other than his own, the Prime Minister will be thinking about how he can keep his job. Despite variations in estimates of our GDP loss from BREXIT, he will know the government figures: a further 7.6% decline in our GDP over the next fifteen years in the event of No-Deal or in the event of some sort of ‘fair trade deal’ a 4.9% decline. This is on top of the shorter term, and shocking, projections of a plunge in GDP, and precipitous growth in unemployment, caused by the pandemic.
Some kind of settlement is on the cards. Johnson may well throw enough of ‘our’ fish into EU nets for the French fishermen. There would seem to be enough wriggle-room with existing EU exemptions to allow state aid to parts of the economy. Though Conservative ideology has always shunned such interventions. Johnson will blather about regaining national sovereignty to obscure the lose-lose reality of his deal. He will hope to blame any subsequent economic collapse on the pandemic. His back-benches who want at all costs to curtail economic damage caused by lock-downs have promoted significantly greater damage than the pandemic through hard-line BREXIT lobbying. No Deal means rolling economic decline continuing until the next election, with Johnson’s chances of survival less than Channel cod.
It will be bad enough with an agreed apology for a deal on the table. In addition to economic disaster and burgeoning domestic poverty the UK will have absolutely no say in the workings of the Single Market, the market which geography determines is our principal, largest and most lucrative trading partner. And without the heft of EU membership Britain will be weakened in far more than its economic power.
Would understanding how we got to this position, the history of UK-EU relations, make this act of self-harm less painful and depressing? Not really. But it seems an appropriate moment to look back.
Sir Stephen Wall’s Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to BREXIT gives the reader the intellectual pleasure of good readable prose, unparalleled expertise, and an historian’s gift for narrative. Wall worked on UK-EU relations in a variety of ways with successive Prime Ministers and was in near constant negotiations with the EU as a civil servant for 35 years. He offers telling glimpses behind the curtains of high office, and a balanced, subtle analysis of how governments and negotiations actually work.
Britain was always the odd one out in Europe. We misjudged the importance of the European Economic Community in its early days and it took us a – lost – decade fighting de Gaulle to get in. And when we were in we contrived to be only half in. There was the Commonwealth to consider. New Zealand butter did not grease the wheels of British membership. We rightly thought the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy which swallowed 90% of the EU budget and benefited mainly France was crazy. Ted Heath was our first true Europhile. But then there was our ‘special relationship’ with the USA which Margaret Thatcher notably enhanced, while infuriating the EU Commission with her strident demands for the return of ‘our money’, the budget rebate. Tony Blair, much appreciated in Brussels before the Iraq war, imagined himself as ‘the bridge’ between the EU and the USA, but to all intents and purposes, traffic across the bridge was one way piling up in the Berlayment Building in Brussels, the EU headquarters.
But behind such policy questions lay the fundamental bone of contention, three words that would never go away: ‘ever closer union’. Britain promoted a liberal trading order within a Single/Common Market and consistently pushed its vision of a EEC/EU as an inter-governmental organisation governed by the deliberations of the State leaders within the EU Council. Our commitment to enlargement by admission of newly freed eastern European countries was aimed at supporting their democratisation and the development of a human rights culture. But enlargement also made a federal EU more difficult to imagine and create.
Nonetheless, Britain reluctantly joined in, or was drawn into, the supranational structures as they developed, the EU Commission and EU Parliament. When Blair was prevented from joining the Eurozone by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the dye of British exceptionalism was cast. Britain with its accumulated opt-outs could not lead the EU, or be ‘at its heart’ as it said it wished. Nor had it ever really been able to break the bond between France and Germany to become member of a leadership triumvirate. Hostility to ‘ever closer union’ was the perennial stumbling block.
EU Enlargement came back to savage the UK. Blair’s imprudent acceptance of unrestricted numbers of eastern European EU migrants – they were an overall plus for the economy – alienated those who resented what they saw as interlopers taking their jobs and housing. So UKIP was able to sew the ‘immigrant problem’ into existing hostility to the EU. Antipathy to concepts of shared sovereignty grew into outright rejection of EU membership fed by the Murdoch Press. Wall makes the case that before the referendum vote Cameron brought back a better package of concessions from the EU Commission than the British public were allowed by the Murdoch Press to consider.
Throughout the 2016 referendum ‘Take back control’ and ‘Project Fear’ trounced REMAIN’s repeated warnings about the economic dangers of BREXIT. Clever half-truths, sometimes flagrant lies about the alleged financial deficit that we accrued from EU membership, plus risible threats of massive Turkish immigration did the rest. Reluctant European charts these choppy waters with insight and skill.
We never got to hear about the many positive EU achievements and developments, several led by the UK. Nor the social, scientific, artistic and security benefits of membership. Though, of course, some like the Social Chapter – from which Major got an opt-out - with its advancement of workers’ rights, was not necessarily seen as positive.
Negativity prevailed though the latest polling confirms public opinion has swung away from BREXIT since 2016. What has not changed is the perennial uncertainty. But we are where we are and stuck with the cliché “perfect storm”. Or as Isaiah once put it “our sins blew us away like the wind”.
See TheArticle 02/12/20