Anybody who watches British TV news, or consumes British media in general, would be forgiven for thinking that the world barely exists beyond the UK’s borders.
This trend has been noticeable for several years, but has accelerated rapidly in the last 12 months. Since the EU referendum June 2016, ‘Britain’ has become enclosed in its own little hothouse world. It is convinced that Europe is plotting against it, convinced that as long as we stop within our own borders and continue to call ourselves Great Britain then everything will be fine and dandy.
A 52:48 vote to leave was hardly a massive mandate for the huge changes leaving the EU will entail; the people who voted to leave seem angry and irritable even in victory. The country becomes more divided with each passing month.
Politicians have been happy to pitch one side against the other, while at the same time quietly giving leavers their full support in the hope of crushing the remainers. Egged on by a tabloid media whose anti EU hysteria knows no bounds, they denounce the ‘enemies of the people’, the ‘remoaners’ and ‘saboteurs’, and anybody else who stands in the way of the “will of the people”.
Virtually everything since the referendum has been viewed through the prism of Brexit. It’s not enough to quietly (and sadly) accept the result. You have to actively and openly embrace it; shout in joy from the rooftops even. Not to do so is seen as a form of treason. Maybe we should just have done with it and order a job lot of ‘I❤Brexit’ t-shirts for the leavers to wear, making it easier to spot the traitors in our midst.
However, 12 months later we are no further on. It is pitiful that the Tory government has failed to elucidate what our Brexit strategy actually is. There is no vision for Britain after Brexit, one that identifies where jobs or growth or opportunities for young people will come from. Instead we get the relentless incantation of worthless platitudes such as “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”. In other words we should implicitly trust the government to get the deal done. We needn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.
The government continue to give the impression that the EU will give us exactly what we want, that they need us more than we need them that, in fact, we are actually doing Europe a favour. We’ll just skip over to Brussels for an agreeable chat, where rights will be respected, obligations met, and assets and liabilities will be divided. A dream deal for the UK will then be signed and we can all be home in time for tea.
And to complicate matters further, the recent humiliating election ‘victory’ for Theresa May (easily our worst PM since, well, David Cameron) leaves her having to revisit the most basic Brexit questions without even having a mandate in her own cabinet office. They appear overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task facing them, uncertain and under-prepared at the worst possible time.
The sheer size, complexity and risks of the negotiations to extract Britain from the EU in an orderly, constructive and economically-beneficial manner have not been discussed at all. Anyone in any doubt about the complex and daunting nature of the negotiations to come should read Ian Dunt’s superb book Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?.
I am reminded of the old builder’s maxim that clients always want a job that is good, quick and cheap. Builders are of the opinion you can only have 2 of those 3 things at any one time. Currently, due to the present Tory ‘hard’ Brexit approach, Britain is on course for a non-deal that will be expensive, damaging to the UK and slow to agree and implement.
But whilst Brexit may be bordering on a national obsession in Britain, the contrast here in the rest of Europe could not be more different. A reality that isn’t being reported in Britain at all.
EU leaders and their citizens are still somewhat perplexed by the referendum result. Their surprise isn’t that our politicians could lie so brazenly to get what they wanted – that was to be expected. But rather their surprise came from the fact that the British public accepted those lies so readily, and on an issue of such importance. Lies that sadly went unchallenged.
Whilst Brexit impinges on almost every item in the British news, here in the Netherlands weeks can pass without any mention of Brexit. The Dutch and the other 26 member governments of the EU have domestic and international agendas that take priority over Brexit. For most of them, Brexit is an irritating sideshow.
All 27 EU countries happily and speedily agreed a common negotiating position, one from which there will be no deviation just to accommodate the bluster of ‘the English patient’. Britain on its own can’t shape Brexit. EU leaders want a deal, but believe they can insist on their terms, since not getting a trading agreement would damage Britain far more than it would the continent – something Britain’s current bellicose rhetoric seems in complete denial about. Tory Brexit ministers appear to believe their own rhetorical nonsense. They’ve been beating the patriotic drum about our trading expertise for so long, while insisting that leaving the EU would be easy, that any suggestion to the contrary is immediately rubbished.
Even before the referendum, and particularly since, the EU have had an army of lawyers and trade experts planning and refining their negotiating strategy and their red lines. Elaborate contingency plans have been prepared in case talks fail. All have been heavily road tested for their likely consequences. They are happy with the preparations they have made. It is why they are calm, sanguine even, about what lies ahead. Not only do they have all their ducks in a row, but they have been waiting patiently in a row for some time.
British preparations seem based on an expectation that the EU will roll over and give in at the first sight of our British ‘bulldog’ spirit. But the EU is much tougher than most Brits believe. Witness the financial punishment beatings meted out to Greece, Portugal and Ireland in return for financial bailout packages. EU leaders won’t hesitate to kick you in the balls if they feel you deserve it.
Our arguments also assume that the EU will only consider economic terms, which I think is a grave misjudgment. The remaining members feel they are fighting to secure the survival of the entire EU, a project that has provided peace and prosperity for 65 years. Politics will unquestionably upstage economics in these negotiations.
Britain hasn’t even attempted a charm offensive with its existing friends in Europe. Despite a long and turbulent history, Britain and Ireland are not only each other’s closest neighbours but also each other’s closet friends. Our economies, citizens and histories are heavily intertwined, but the consequences and symbolism of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland seem to have barely been considered.
And whilst we may not always want the same policies as the Netherlands, in terms of EU business we are very often of the same mind. The Netherlands may be small, but it is an influential EU member with a direct line to Berlin. But there hasn’t been a single visit by government officials to try and find common ground before talks begin. This door, and others, are now quietly closing all over the continent. The only advocates for Britain’s position is Britain.
If negotiations do fail then it will be spun as those dastardly Europeans not giving Britain what they want – and what they ‘deserve’. There will be no reflection on the fact that it would be the end result of a domestic process that Britain started voluntarily.
Once we can no longer scapegoat the EU for everything, the consequences of decades of poor UK policy making will be crystal clear.
None of this is to say that a deal can’t be negotiated, although the outcome will be markedly inferior to what we, as EU members, have now. But to do so Britain needs to be friendly and not belligerent, flexible and not intransigent, and to take the extra time necessary, several years even, to get the deal right, rather than rushing it just to satisfy the rabid desires of the tabloid press and the Brexiteer head-bangers in the Tory party.
We are displaying none of these qualities at the moment. In 1624 British poet John Donne famously wrote that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. Britain’s current insularity and continued drive towards a hard, chaotic exit from the EU is in danger of proving him wrong