The invoking of Article 50 was necessarily cordial. What follows may not be

Telegraph View
Theresa May leaves Downing Street to deliver her Article 50 statement to Parliament - EPA

When relationships break down it can be comforting to pretend that those involved simply decided to call it a day – jointly, and in the best interests of both. But the painful truth is that, almost inevitably, one party has chosen to leave in search of a better, happier future elsewhere, and the other feels abandoned, embittered. Those doing the leaving might offer words of comfort, or promises to stay in touch. Between bouts of tears, those on the receiving end may spit poisonous oaths and vows of retribution.

So it seemed, did the marital drama of the EU and UK play out on Wednesday. After more than four decades of union – some years happy, but others turbulent, punctuated by major fights and, recently, characterised by fatal disenchantment – Britain finally made good on its threats to pack its bags and leave. To many in the EU (and no doubt some diehards in Britain) this was an astonishing development. Even in recent weeks, we know, some on the Continent were certain Brexit would never happen. “She says she’ll go,” they said dismissively of Theresa May, “but she’ll never actually do it.”

Now she has. And with the delivery of the letter triggering Article 50 to Donald Tusk, the realisation has unequivocally dawned in Europe that Britannia really is off. For good. Cue Mr Tusk’s sadness. “We already miss you,” he said. Well, the EU might have thought about that when it offered David Cameron such derisory renegotiation terms in the months before last June’s referendum.

Not that EU reaction is confined to melancholy. As so often with grief, anger follows hard on the heels of sadness. So cue, also, EU threats couched as negotiating positions, and the tone of veiled menace which betrays the hardening heart of the spurned. From the European Parliament, which will have to vote to ratify any UK-EU deal, a leaked draft motion for a resolution set out distinctly hawkish parameters for talks. In Germany, the foreign ministry spokesman wondered out loud “if everyone in London has understood the consequences” of potential uncertainty caused by Brexit “especially for the British economy”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel then insisted that the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU must be settled before discussions can begin on what any future relationship might look like, flatly contradicting one of Mrs May’s key aims only hours after it was set out.

It is in no one’s interests that the EU collapse in disorderly fashion

It is understandable that the EU and its leaders respond in this way. For them Brexit is a grievous blow. The EU may well survive it, and it is in no one’s interests that the bloc collapse in disorderly fashion, but there is no doubt that Britain’s departure will encourage other states to think again about their own membership, about whether this can be altered or perhaps even abandoned altogether. For the mandarins of the monolithic EU, that is heresy, to be quashed at all costs, even at the price of some self-inflicted damage. In the barmy world of EU politics it is entirely rational to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Not for Britain, though. Not any more. The Brexit vote was not just about our sovereignty, but also about rescuing our politics from the grand, integrationist plan hatched in Brussels, designed specifically with an inescapable momentum that crushes everything in its path, even if perfectly sensible. Common sense, whether of regulatory simplicity or of a tailored immigration policy, can soon be reapplied in this country. And it was entirely good sense that the Prime Minister did not reciprocate the tone of ill-feeling emanating from across the Channel on Wednesday. Mrs May has a clear plan, and it is vital that she is a charming and emollient as necessary to secure as much of it as possible.

To cite Churchill after El Alamein, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. And at this early stage in negotiations it is entirely right that the Prime Minister set out her ambitions with the utmost respect and cordiality. But as talks continue, she may need to demonstrate steel, bellicosity even, to ensure that this country gets the best deal it possibly can. For the EU and Great Britain both have interests to defend, constituencies to appease. Looked at in this light, it is little wonder that the EU has struck a very different pose to the UK. Just as Downing Street must demand everything at the outset in order still to be seen to achieve a good deal after concessions, so Brussels must offer nothing now in order for its inevitable compromises not to be seen ultimately as a sell-out to perfidious Albion.

As with the carefully choreographed delivery of that letter to Donald Tusk, much of what is happening now – on both sides – is stage-managed for public consumption. Soon, however, the hard work will be put in behind closed doors. And then we must be ready, if not keen, to take the gloves off.

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