The Observer view on EU negotiations | Observer editorial

Observer editorial
A Brexit supporter’s Union Jack at a pro-EU demonstration outside parliament last week. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

What a jolly week for the hard Tory Brexiters! After nine months of whingeing and bellyaching that Remain fifth columnists were conspiring to rob them of their referendum prize, the glorious day finally dawned. Theresa May stood up in the House of Commons and formally declared the UK was quitting the European Union. A lot of rhetoric followed about how Britain remained inseparably European, how we share our EU partners’ values, and how, like an unfaithful husband walking out the door, we want to keep a “deep and special” relationship.

But for the gleeful hard Tory Brexiters of Little England and their Fleet Street lapdogs, this was all so much guff. They knew what it really meant. It meant Britain, finally, was giving the finger to Brussels. No more irritating European directives, un-bendy bananas, butter mountains, fishy fish quotas and swarthy, unelected Eurocrats telling us what to do. No more Polish plumbers and Romanian turnip-pickers. No more UK taxpayer subsidies for inefficient French farmers. And no more nonsense about a united states of Europe. Britannia was free at last – it was Agincourt all over again, without the mud.

How foolish and deluded. It was General Colin Powell, former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, who repeated the mantra “be careful what you wish for, you may get it”. In 1991, Powell counselled President George HW Bush against a full-scale invasion of Iraq. Bush heeded his advice. Sadly, 12 years later, his son did not, with lasting consequences.

This is a measure of the scale of the hard Tory Brexiters’ miscalculation – a damaging, historic error that will haunt this country for decades. The reality of separation from the EU is finally beginning to dawn. The initial two-year period of arduous, uphill negotiations with a more powerful, 27-nation bloc begins, and May’s second-rate team is no match.

Europe became the scapegoat and whipping boy for the failures of British society and successive British governments

The EU is not, and never was, the gross caricature of bent bananas and over-paid bureaucrats peddled by the lie factories of Fleet Street. It was not about foolish regulations, although they undoubtedly exist, or wicked plots to sap British sovereignty. Through its imagined domination and exaggerated importunities, “Europe” became the scapegoat and whipping boy of choice for the failures of British society and successive British governments. Europe was used cynically to excuse the inadequacies of our politicians and justify the nationalistic and ethnic prejudices of too many people.

Now, with a stroke of her pen, May has inadvertently pulled down this veil of lies and distortions, obscuring what the EU really means and does. The hard Tory Brexiters don’t have Europe to kick around any more. For what we are about to receive, we have only ourselves to blame. Britain is on its own, as they wanted.

And so, at a stroke, the hard Brexiters have pivoted and, with no Brussels and Eurocrats to blame, they have set their sights on domestic targets. In its typically brutish way, the Daily Mail, within hours of the triggering of article 50, started talking about the “enemy within”. And what exactly is so treacherous about the “enemy within”? The desire to challenge, debate, scrutinise and oppose aspects of the Brexit deal. To not fully sign up to Brexit is, it seems, to render oneself unpatriotic; an enemy. The Economist has described the atmosphere which has characterised the hard Brexiters’ public discourse as “McCarthyite”.

Imagine, now, the impact on the public realm in Britain as the bilious hate previously directed at Europe is trained on “the enemy within”. All because those who make up this enemy are bold enough to demand scrutiny of the Brexit deal or even, heaven forfend, wish for it to be overturned.

For the past 30 years, Eurosceptics were entitled to argue their case – loudly supported by elements in the media. Now, with positions reversed, Europhiles can and should do the same. To describe them as “enemies within” is to release a toxic virus into public discourse that Brexiters should disown, and Remainers should challenge. Britain can do better than this.

Less than a year into her premiership, May resembles the hapless front for a xenophobic minority of hardline Europhobes

Less than a year into her premiership, May resembles the hapless front for a xenophobic minority of hardline Europhobes. Talk last week of a more emollient government line reflected growing unease in Downing Street.

The tone of May’s statement to parliament was cautious and conciliatory. She admitted there would be uncomfortable consequences. Her threat to link her economic demands to Europe’s future security was as unwise as it was unpersuasive. Read carefully, May’s statement sounded less like a stirring, revolutionary manifesto for a brave new Britain, and more like a slightly shamefaced resignation from a home counties golf club.

The government white paper that followed, on translating thousands of EU regulations into British law, afforded the hard Tory Brexiters another fleeting celebration. The title of “great repeal bill” is misleading and overblown. The “great continuity bill” would be more accurate, for it is, in truth, an admission of how much this country still needs the EU and will continue – indefinitely – to do so. A concomitant danger, highlighted by Welsh and Scottish leaders, is a looming power-grab by Westminster at the expense of the devolved assemblies.

Yet overall, as the week unfolded, the hard Tory Brexiters mostly had it their own way. As usual, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn failed to draw blood. Nicola Sturgeon’s big moment, formally requesting a second independence referendum for Scotland, was almost wholly eclipsed, at least south of the border. The Brexit leaving party was in full swing. And then, suddenly, the music stopped.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, in Malta last week. Photograph: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images

The blow fell on Friday, with publication by Donald Tusk, the European council president, of the EU’s draft negotiating guidelines. It was as if the mist had suddenly lifted, revealing a future landscape as it truly was, not as the Tory ideologues and fanatics imagined it to be.

To May’s repeated requests for immediate, parallel talks on a free trade deal while departure terms are discussed, an emphatic “No”. To her unsavoury gambit that the rights of EU citizens in Britain be used as a bargaining chip: another resounding “No”. To the government’s attempt to bypass the issue of the Irish border: “No.” On special, sectional single market deals for car manufacturers and the City: “No.” Likewise, the idea that the UK could somehow elude the EU principle of freedom of movement and EU jurisdiction during a post-2019 transition: it was not going to happen, said Tusk.

It has become crystal clear that not only will the EU set the agenda for the exit talks, it will also control their pace, parameters and conclusions – or else, no deal at all. It will be the EU, not Britain, that decides when “sufficient progress” has been made to allow talks on trade to commence. It will be the EU that sets the terms governing the transition needed to avoid the cliff edge so feared by business. And it will be the EU that decides whether Britain has paid its dues. Nobody in last year’s Leave campaign talked about a leaving bill of up to £50bn. They will have to now if they want to make progress.

After months of mostly placatory, regretful statements, the EU is talking tough. Who can blame them? They want to protect themselves and their citizens. Some want to take advantage, in Spain’s case by reopening the Gibraltar question. How grossly incompetent of Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, not to have seen that one coming.

Others, such as Angela Merkel in Germany, look at the bigger picture of a Europe uniquely threatened by both Russia and Trump’s America, and will waste no sympathy on self-harming Brits. As Tusk warned, it could all get unpleasant pretty fast.

Why is any of this a surprise? It should not be. The reality, as opposed to the fantasy and tabloid caricatures, is that Britain needs the EU, and vice versa, to keep the peace and in other, essential ways. As that lesson is belatedly learned, we face a harsh future as outsiders.

This was not a week for celebration. The only possible consolation is that the hard Brexit championed by the Tory right has been exposed as demonstrably unworkable.

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