Britain’s departure from the European Union, one of the largest economic powers in the world, is a historic and needless act of political folly, the consequences of which will shape this country and our neighbours for years come. But now it is happening. It is thus the country’s fourth big geopolitical shift since 1945. First we withdrew from empire, begining with India in 1947. The second was joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1973. The third was the ending of the cold war between 1989 and 1991. They changed the world in ways no one could predict and we are still living today with the results. An abrupt severance from Europe without any transitional link to our nearest neighbours, with whom there are bonds of common endeavour, could still result in chaos. This would place at risk not only our prosperity and security but also deal a blow to the multilateral architecture that could presage a more volatile global era.
The sort of disorder that might be inflicted upon us in the coming years was there for all to see in the hours after Theresa May had sent Brussels our goodbye letter. It had started all so well. In parliament Mrs May wisely chose to make her pitch – both in tone and substance – in emollient terms. She had weighed her words carefully and was at her prime ministerial best at the despatch box where after delivering her speech she stood for hours taking questions. If Mrs May wanted to make a point about Brexit being accountable to parliament, she did so today. However, in Europe her letter was met with claims of “blackmail” and outrage, some of it generated for audiences back home who cannot understand why Britain is leaving. Mrs May’s unsubtle suggestion was that there could be a trade-off between Britain’s security responsibilities with its desire for economic gain. This is an anathema for those who translated it as a modern day form of gunboat diplomacy: open your markets or we will leave you at the mercy of terrorists and Russia. Some of this is undoubtedly overblown. Mrs May knows it is in the interests of the EU and the UK that they should continue to act as close military allies, especially in uncertain times. She made the point several times in her Lancaster House speech. It remains her strongest – and weakest – argument. After all who – if not Europe – will Britain ally with? Better if Mrs May had appreciated quietly that the UK contributes to European security, generating goodwill to secure a favourable trade deal.
This is a revealing error. Until now Mrs May has only had to deal with an audience composed of rabid Brexiters in the press and in her own party. They lapped up any Brussels’ bashing. However, now her critics are the people Mrs May has to do business with abroad. They cannot be bought off with Daily Mail headlines. They are also plainly unhappy with being presented with a trade-off between security and trade when wars are being fought in Europe’s backyard. It shows that Mrs May understands her domestic audience but not her European interlocuters. Remember there are two years of this to come, so Mrs May needs to learn fast. What Eurosceptics have failed to understand is that the European Union is considered an existential inspiration, a destination for those who wanted democracy. To those living in the dictatorships of central and southern Europe which the magnetic power of the EU helped to overthrow, Europe meant freedom. For post-war Germans, a nation’s power could not be exercised without the European Union. That perhaps explains the firm rebuttal from Angela Merkel, who also goes to the polls this year. Mrs May needs to lose her tin ear for European politics. It is obvious that the EU needs to deter others from following the UK’s path. While anti-EU Geert Wilders failed to gain power in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen remains in contention to become the next French President. Italy is even more troubling; two of the three leading parties in opinion polls are anti-EU.
It was not all bad news for Europe. Mrs May should be congratulated for saying Britain sought to “guarantee the rights of EU citizens” and for putting worker’s rights at the heart of Brexit. It would be an irony if those who voted for Brexit bore the brunt of its failures. There was, however, no mention of protections for the environment, the consumer or over data protection. These promises were made in the government’s white paper and ministers should be held accountable for delivering such pledges. They already appear to be eating their words over claims that in post-Brexit Britain immigration would be reduced. While this newspaper wanted to remain in the EU, no one can be blind to the reality some voters had felt marooned by global forces beyond their control, which had they thought hollowed out their lives. However, this must not mean Brexit Britain should be a narrow-minded place, revelling in anti-immigrant isolationism. At stake is not Brexit, but what kind of Brexit. It was good to hear Mrs May say the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe – and Britain shares those values. Mrs May, a remainer, now leads a Brexit government. In January she warned “supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life”. Mrs May was in effect saying a breach was always likely on the grounds of deep incompatibility.
What never went away was the bitter rancour of a peculiar British trait: a feeling that we had traded an empire we ran for one, bizzarely it was claimed, that ran us. Euroscepticism has existed ever since the European project has existed. But it was embedded in this nation’s heart by Thatcherite cheerleaders who wanted first a separation and then began to call for a permanent break up. The strongest proof of Europe’s feelings for Britain was all the trouble Brussels had put up with for the relationship’s sake. In the end we have walked out, consciously uncoupling with a divorce letter that bitterly demands a special relationship after years in a marriage of inconvenience.