Wednesday 7 November 2018

No, we’re not being bullied by the EU over Brexit

The following thought-provoking article by Jonathan Lis,
Deputy Director of the Think Tank “British Influence”,
originally appeared in Prospect Magazine on-line on November 2 2018

The logical consequence of leaving Europe is that we are worse off. Brussels bullying simply doesn’t enter into it.

As the Brexit negotiations stutter towards a new deadline and a new opportunity to miss it, the rhetoric of punishment again hangs in the air. The narrative is predictable. The EU is attempting to blackmail us into accepting the Irish backstop, taking its revenge on us for leaving. We should have no desire to be in an organisation that bullies and humiliates us. 
This is not simply the language of radio shock-jocks and nationalist commentators. The foreign secretary told the Conservative Party conference that the EU “[seems] to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves… even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea.” For good measure he then compared the bloc to a Soviet prison. That was a neat accompaniment to his predecessor’s remark that the French president “wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie.” If it’s not the empire, eventually it will be the Nazis.

The genre was recently best illuminated by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott in the Spectator. He warned that the EU might, in a no deal scenario, “hit out with tariffs and impose burdens on Britain.” Students of global trade might be aware that these “tariffs and burdens” are otherwise known as following the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

The truth, should it need to be pointed out, is that the EU is not punishing us. It is simply refusing to grant us special privileges. From the beginning, Brussels’ deepest red line has demanded that the UK must not be able to enjoy the benefits of membership without its obligations, and must therefore be accorded no more favours than any other non-member. Originally the EU might have been motivated by a desire not to spread the “contagion” of exit, but that risk has long since abated. Now member states insist on the policy in order to boost their political cohesion and long-term interests.

The EU can only function with a commitment to common laws. This is particularly apparent in the case of no deal. When Brexiters are confronted with the reality of collapsed port infrastructure, empty supermarkets and grounded aircraft, they either dismiss them altogether or accuse the EU of attacking us. This is a straightforward inversion of the truth. The Article 50 mechanism carefully outlines the results of triggering it. A no deal is by definition the result of the UK’s request to sever all existing agreements with the EU. If the UK wants to be a third country, the EU must comply. In labelling its own sovereign decisions as external punishment, Britain is blaming the EU for acquiescing to its self-immolation.

Shared laws accompany shared principles, and the EU depends on both. Jeremy Hunt’s comments therefore betray a peculiarly British narcissism. They discount the possibility that other countries besides our own might have ambitions to promote and interests to protect. The EU’s priority is not the economic integrity, or punishment, of a departing member state, but the cohesion of its single market and peace on the island of Ireland. Unfortunately for the UK, the EU has the economic power and political leverage to insist upon both.

Given that only the Irish backstop currently prevents the government from signing the withdrawal agreement, that is now the focus of the punishment narrative. The Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has again stated that Britain must follow through on the commitments it made, and that it must do so in the next week. Typically, Brexiters ignore Ireland’s near-existential concern over a hard border and affirm that Dublin and Brussels are railroading us into a soft Brexit.

The truth is more prosaic. The EU27 are not issuing a last-minute demand or ultimatum on the pain of no-deal. They are quite literally asking the UK not to renege on what it freely signed up to in December and March, and which it has acknowledged forms a condition of any exit agreement.

Fittingly, perhaps, the block to a withdrawal treaty thus arises not from any great conspiracy to hurt us or deprive us of our global destiny, but because British ministers were either too lazy to read or too dim to understand the document they agreed to.

It is worth asking how the punishment narrative gained such traction in government and the wider Brexit establishment. The whole point of Brexit was that we were stronger than the EU, they needed us more than we needed them, and we would have the capability to pull out at any moment without feeling a scratch. In December 2016 then Brexit secretary David Davis remarked, with characteristic modesty and self-awareness, that he would be “kind” to the EU by granting it a transition even though the UK did not want or need one. How can the EU punish us when we hold all the cards?

The answer takes us to the heart of Brexit: namely, a co-dependent myth of domination and grievance. The EU must validate both our Anglocentrism and our victimhood, and thus simultaneously revere and attack us. Because we see ourselves as unique, the same treatment as any other third country is necessarily punishment.

The truth about Brexit and punishment lies rather closer to home. From Theresa May’s declaration at Lancaster House that we would be leaving the single market and customs union, to her recent affirmation in the Commons that she would rather crash out of the EU with no deal than extend Article 50, Brexit represents a zenith of arbitrary self-harm unprecedented in modern history. When it comes to a no-deal scenario, we are not only freely administering that punishment, but also requesting it in masochistic abundance from the EU.

Brussels does not want us to commit economic and political hara-kiri, but will not stop us if we insist on it. The sad reality is that during the course of this process we have only ever been punishing ourselves.