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Expert View

Brexit bluff called as Europe yawns at UK playpen politics

by Denis MacShane | 18.10.2017

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.

Paris: From the point of view of anywhere on the continent, there is now just a widening yawn about Brexit. “If you want to go, go and get on with going” is what politicians and policy-makers or opinion formers now say. Brexit may be of the utmost centrality for a narrow self-obsessed English political class – Labour and other opposition parties as much as ruling Tories – but the rest of Europe sees a petulant whining baby that will neither do the business nor get off the potty.

If the UK wants to keep open some trade relationship then Europe is happy to talk. Michel Barnier told me in April he had a plan for a no-tariff, no-duty trade deal once the three Article 50 negotiation points – money, N Ireland, and EU/UK citizens – had been sorted.

Those three points, it is worth recalling, were accepted by the government. They are not some cunning Eurocrat plot devised by the wicked wizards of Brussels but a jointly agreed agenda to get base-line agreement before moving on. No one from Poland to Portugal thinks it is Barnier’s or Jean-Claude Juncker’s fault that the British government is incapable of making serious offers out of sheer terror it seems of a few Ukip fellow travellers in the cabinet and a couple of propaganda papers owned off-shore.

On the eve of the Brexit referendum Boris Johnson boasted that there were “hundreds of millions of people around Europe who agree with us but currently have no voice.” This bombastic vanity has turned out to be hollow.

While there were some hopes that Brexit would be followed by Frexit under a Marine Le Pen or Nexit when Geert Wilders became Dutch prime minister, the opposite has happened. Le Pen now says France should stay in the EU and keep using the euro. The new Dutch government is firmly committed to the EU. The different parties of the populist right and left like the Freedom Party in Austria, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany or Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are all committed to staying in the EU.

So are illiberal rulers of Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere in the post-2004 enlarged European Union. Britain is now alone in wanting to amputate itself from the EU.       

Political leaders on the continent may want a differently run EU with different priorities and from both right, left, liberal or green points of view a different Europe is a fair political demand. But none of them, for a second, is thinking of following Theresa May or Johnson, or the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail in arguing that their countries should leave the EU.

Far from speaking for hundreds of millions, Boris Johnson is now the EU’s number one clown as he keeps denouncing Europe and bad-mouthing European leaders. Brexit has had the opposite effect of waking the rest of Europe up to what a disaster leaving the EU would mean for their national interests.

The advocates of a transition in London cannot face up to this point. The EU may well offer a transition – assuming agreement on Article 50 priorities – but it is a transition to nowhere.  Britain at best becomes a rule-taker not a rule-maker and has to abide by laws and regulation the UK would have no part in making.

The rest of Europe is not going to do Britain any favours before, during and after a transition period. The Brexit bluff has been called. The EU27 are not frightened by Brexit. The only signal that would make sense would be to be big enough – as over Suez, or 1930s appeasement, or interventions in Iraq and Libya, or even the poll tax – to admit a mistake was made, swallow pride, find a new generation of political leaders, ignore the Barclay brothers, Jonathan Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch, and return to being a leading nation in Europe.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

6 Responses to “Brexit bluff called as Europe yawns at UK playpen politics”

  • One point that no-one seems to have picked up in what I have seen is that ‘settling the Irish question’ is impossible in advance of knowledge of the trade deal that will emerge at the end of the negotiations. If we remain in the single market/customs union, there is no issue. If we do not, it’s a stinker. But you actually cannot settle it now, before any further negotiation. (Equally, what you cannot do is what Davies did some time back, which is suggest some fantasy ‘borderless border’ mediated by a non-existent technological ‘fix’ of some kind.)

    • I would dispute your point that nothing can be prepared in regards to the Irish border.

      the real question is what situation will the UK (as opposed to the current government) be come March 2019 :

      “will it be outside the EU custom union or single market ? if not, will it be within a transitional period towards fully exiting the EU ?”

      that’s really all that is needed to do preparatory work, train and recruit custom agents and devise a paperwork system.

      we know that the current Tory government wants to be OUTSIDE both the custom union and the single market, which therefore means a hard border, either between the republic and norther ireland, or at northern ireland’s ports and airports (if the UK wants to play nice and accomodative).

      we also know that the current Tory government wants a transitional agreement of “around” 2 years, which would essentially be used to upgrade/install a new custom relationship. so it only means the date for the setup is moved from march 2019 to “around” march 2021.

      the thing is 6-12 months is way to short a time to create a hard border between the UK and EU with minimal disruption.
      Therefore, without already negotiating for custom union/single market membership (which would contradict all statements made by the Tory government thus far), one can only much conclude that a transitional agreement has more or less be agreed PROVIDED that the UK pays its dues and set EU citizen rights in Britain post-Brexit at the EU level (so that UK citizens in the EU do not lose rights in Europe by downgrading them to UK level).

      that’s why any talk of “no deal” from the UK side is just no credible : they would massively invest billions since July 2016 in custom officers and port authorities if they truly wanted to bluff/prepare for crashing outside the EU – which the UK isn’t, not even now, this late in the negotiations …

      • I agree broadly but one does not know how runs today’s Tory Party and just how passionate it is ready to be to obtain full amputational Brexit. Will cripple road haulage industry but I have letter from them saying they are not opposing Brexit. What can you do?

    • Yes and No. There was nothing on ballot paper about leaving the Customs Union. UK lies 15th in EU league table of exports per capita so it is sheer nonsense to argue the only way we can improve exports is by leaving C Union. The problem is Mrs May setting up a new Dept of Int Trade with Liam Fox who has delivered nothing. If he and his dept could quietly go we could drop the pulling of of CU line and there is no border problem with N Ireland

  • You have to credit David Davis for doing a brilliant ‘smoke and mirrors’ job. He’s a master of pretending he’s done more or less all he can to move the negotiations on, but on further scrutiny, it’s clear he’s blocking progress. For example, several weeks ago he said expat pensioners could relax as reciprocal healthcare had been agreed upon. Then last week he admitted that there were several “sticking points”, such as right to export benefits, hardly a minor detail for expats. About the same time his own DExEU Department stated on this issue that “nothing had yet been decided”.
    It may be that Davis had in his earlier comment been referring to the EHIC card, very important for travellers, and all well and good, but not the same as help for permanent residents. Maybe a genuine error of communication, maybe not.
    Fact is I suspect Davis is playing fast and loose with citizens rights, something that for the EU is an absolute priority (and also supposedly for the Government). He made some comment to the effect that he wanted to move the negotiations on, as the undecided issues, (such as citizens rights), might be effected by other to be negotiated matters. In other words, their rights can be used as ‘bargaining chips’.
    If he tries this on, I hope he is flatly denied by the Barnier team. Expats, both EU and UK, are people who’ve made their future life plans to move under the EU treaties, many having saved and invested accordingly, and it would be an outrage for them to be forced out. Already 122,00 EU citizens left the UK in the year to last March, which tells its own story. Anyway, we know the EU Parliament have insisted that citizens rights is top of their agenda, so given that a deal also needs their consent, Davis might as well deliver on this now.

    • I think the EU 27 will resist having their citizens who happen to be in the UK treated as a second class with inferior rights.
      This is a function of the pre-June 2016 obsession with European here. I think this is going away and have long argued/written that we can change the management of the UK labour market with new internal rules that would help to allay the fears whipped up Ukip, Immgrant Watch, anti-immigrant Tories and the press