web_Brexit rabbit hole

Chris Patten once remarked that for all its decades of membership, Britain had never really joined the EU. What the former Tory cabinet minister and European Commissioner meant, I think, is that it had never properly grasped the psychology of European integration.

For France, Germany, Italy and the rest, the union was a political project with emotional roots deeper than the economic rationale. For Brits, it was a commercial transaction — a club they had signed up to by dint of straitened economic circumstance rather than political choice.

The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as Britain’s permanent representative, or ambassador, in Brussels suggests that even as it prepares to leave the EU, nothing has changed. A mindset that has marred 40-odd years of membership now militates against an orderly departure. You do not have to read too closely between the lines of his resignation letter to spot Sir Ivan’s deep concern that the process is heading for a train crash.

The misreading of the EU’s political purpose has meant that politicians at Westminster have never quite shaken off the conviction that the enterprise is destined at some point to fail. When the founding “six” gathered in Messina in 1955, the chancellor Rab Butler dismissed the proceedings as no more than “some archaeological diggings” in an ancient Sicilian town.

Each further step towards integration has been greeted with similar scorn, and by a subsequent admission that Britain could not afford to be left too far behind. Even now, many Brexiters claim to be leaving a sinking ship.

Along the way ministers have consistently underestimated the strength and importance of the Franco-German partnership. I have given up counting the number of times I have been told by these politicians — Labour and Conservative — that, as free-market northern Europeans, the Germans can be prised away from Paris. Each attempt has met with failure, as the former prime minister David Cameron discovered in his many efforts to win over Chancellor Angela Merkel.

For Ms Merkel, as for her predecessors, the union is a vessel for European values. It is an enterprise that underpins the peace, stability and democracy of the continent, and, more than incidentally, guarantees Germany’s break with the past. More, perhaps, than some other European leaders, she wants an amicable parting of the ways with Britain. But if it comes to a choice, there is no contest. The alliance with France and the coherence of the EU come first.

Sir Ivan’s sin was to speak truth to power. One of the striking sentences in his letter is an admission — it sounds more of a complaint — that less than three months before the expiry of her self-imposed deadline to trigger Article 50, Theresa May has yet to decide on her core negotiating objectives. Has the prime minister decided that Britain must leave the single market? How much national control does she want over immigration? Can Britain stay in the customs union? Will it continue to pay into the Brussels budget?

Mrs May has promised answers soon but Sir Ivan’s erstwhile colleagues in Whitehall are not holding their breath. To the extent that a British “plan” is emerging from the months of head-scratching and wrangling, it is one likely to be divorced from the hard truths Sir Ivan had been seeking to convey. Faced with the trade-off between, say, repatriation of immigration controls and privileged access to the single market, the prime minister’s reaction is simply to state that no such binary choice exists. Britain, she insists, will negotiate a bespoke arrangement.

With characteristic gravitas, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, calls this “having your cake and eating it”. The other 27 EU governments, it seems, must be content with the crumbs. This was the state of denial that Sir Ivan was seeking to break through when reporting back some of the “disagreeable” truths emerging from his conversations in Brussels. He urged civil service colleagues to continue to supply the government with “unvarnished” reports on the views in other European capitals.

Ministers can draw up any number of schemes for carveouts, opt-ins and special privileges. But, detached from reality, they are unlikely to survive first contact with Britain’s negotiating partners. At this point Mr Johnson is inclined to stand up and proclaim that all will be fine. The 27 will give Britain what it wants in their own self-interest. They will have in mind safeguarding Britain’s substantial imports of Italian prosecco, luxury German cars and French wine.

There are two manifest flaws here: the first that Britain is a much smaller market for its partners than is the union for Britain; the second is the unlearnt lesson that most other Europeans do not look through the same narrow, transactional lens. The EU has a meaning and purpose beyond the export of bottles of fizz and expensive cars.

Sir Ivan had urged Mrs May not to set a deadline for the start of Article 50 talks, warning her that to do so would surrender much of Britain’s leverage. Once the clock starts ticking, it will soon be obvious which side has more to lose from a breakdown. The prime minister brushed him aside. She wanted something to tell the Tory conference. That already looks a costly mistake. Imagining that she can get her way by telling her partners that Britain knows what is best for them would be fatal.


Letters in response to this column:

The problem was one of different aspirations / From C R Cann, London N1, UK

Disorderly exit is not in either side’s interests / From Renato G Flôres Jr, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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