The Observer view on the urgent need for a fresh vote on Europe

Observer editorial
Theresa May’s plea for help was met with embarrassment and pity by the other 27 leaders in Brussels. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The way the hard Tory Brexiters told it, Europe’s leaders should have been begging for mercy by now. Instead, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron popped out for a convivial beer or two in a Brussels brasserie after last week’s supposedly make-or-break EU summit. If they were worried about the latest failure to complete a Brexit deal, they were hiding it well. The contrast with Theresa May, who dined alone after her nervy plea for help was met with embarrassment and pity by the other 27 leaders, was stark. Humiliating does not begin to describe the situation the government has got itself into.

What has happened to all those German car manufacturers whose panic at the prospect of losing British sales would force the German government to bow to Brexiters’ demands? David Davis, the former Brexit secretary who quit while he was behind, is still peddling this fantasy. The reality is that Europe’s exporters would rather preserve the single market, which has massively benefited them and us. And just in case Boris Johnson wonders, Italian prosecco-makers are also holding their nerve with true Brit grit.

The sorry truth of the matter is that the hard Tory Brexiters, and a large chunk of an ageing, out-of-touch, predominantly southern English Conservative party, do not understand Europe or the EU or what it means to be European. They cling doggedly to a grossly distorted, sentimental view of history that portrays this country as a unique exemplar of enlightened governance, swashbuckling enterprise and imperial endeavour that rose, by right, to be first among nations. They believe Britain (by which they really mean England) could lead the world again, if only freed of Europe’s jealous embrace.

Hard Brexiters, and a large chunk of ageing, out-of-touch, largely southern English Tories, do not understand Europe

They do not grasp, nor do they value, the collective peace and security that increased European co-operation has brought. Their myth is that Britain “saved” Europe in 1945 and was repaid with ingratitude. They do not understand how business is done these days, by multiple actors serving international clienteles, regardless of national borders. They do not see that on a planet of finite resources, sharing is a necessity, not a choice. They do not realise the British are Europe’s citizens, too. In short, hard Tory Brexiters worship a past that never existed while hailing a future that will never materialise.

The legions of People’s Vote supporters who marched through London, and the millions who back their call for a second referendum, understand the idea and importance of Europe very well. For them, it means the chance to travel, study, work and live abroad. For them, Europe means inclusiveness, shared values and laws, mutual tolerance and a joyful openness to the majestic richness of myriad lifestyles, languages, traditions and beliefs.

Europe is where many of our young people, this country’s future, already dwell, spiritually, culturally, politically and aspirationally. For them, Brexit is a wanton act of family separation, brutally wrecking the European home where they were raised. Unrealistic claims have been made about civil unrest if Brexit is thwarted. Yet if it goes ahead willy-nilly, the prospective backlash among our younger generations at seeing their future opportunities and prosperity so cruelly curtailed should alarm everybody. Many of Britain’s best and brightest may simply up and leave.

Shame on these hard Tory Brexiters who would sacrifice our children’s futures for an illusion. They know very well what they don’t like, these stick-in-the mud reactionaries. They don’t like the single market, the customs union and the European court. And, polls show, they don’t give a fig about the union, Scotland’s wishes or peace on the Irish border. What do they like? A return, perhaps, to an imagined nirvana at the apogee of the Victorian age? And how will they achieve it? On this, for more than two years, they have never, ever been clear or honest.

Whenever Theresa May tries to turn the Brexit wishlist into binding words on paper, they scream betrayal. Every time her impractical ideas are rebuffed by a unified EU, they plunge back into denial. Every time the prime minister hints at a concession, they turn rebellious. May has only herself to blame, as we have said before. The appeasement of such dogmatic critics never works. They will never be satisfied – because all they seem to know, and what they seem most to enjoy, is whingeing from the wings.

May is running out of road, both in the Brexit talks and as prime minister. To call all this a “shitshow”, as the Conservative MP Johnny Mercer did, is not inaccurate. His crudeness is on a par with the futility of May’s quest to hold her dysfunctional party together while achieving a deal that the entire EU, parliament and even the noisome Democratic Unionists can approve. Britain is on the brink of a historic calamity, for which the country’s entire political class must share the blame. Brexit, on any currently available terms, will be a disaster. No deal will be worse. The politicians have failed, so the people must take charge. We must have a second referendum.