“Theresa May for Britain” run the latest Tory ads, and the message really could not be plainer. Voting Conservative in the locals and the general election is supposed to be the only thing any patriotic person can do in the circumstances. As if plumping for Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, for example, or voting to give the Lib Dems control of Cornwall again, will offer some great morale boost to our fictional foes in the Berlaymont, as if this was 1940 all over again. The Prime Minister has, absurdly, sought to wrap herself in the Union flag, and gone to verbal war with the European Union, which she accuses of seeking to interfere in the democratic process. This is not the way to get a deal.
Whether a calculated Trump-style tactic or not, it is a profoundly damaging one. The leaders of the European Union – from the German Chancellor down – have made it perfectly clear that they have little interest in the arithmetic of the House of Commons and that whoever is negotiating Brexit will need to talk about the hard realities of money, trade and migration. Does anyone believe that the request for the UK to fund long-term commitments to EU projects and pensions can be wished away simply because the Tories happen to have a three-figure majority in Parliament rather than one in double figures, or none at all, for that matter? On 9 June whoever is returned to Downing Street will face those same grim challenges, except that a good deal of time will have been wasted on an unnecessary and premature general election, and an enormous amount of friction caused by Ms May’s aggressive stance.
It seems a long time ago now that she wrote her Article 50 letter, pledging a “constructive” approach. Many feared that such goodwill as did exist might not last far beyond the opening of formal talks. In fact it has not even survived the introductory informal sessions she has had, particularly with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Now the influence of Mr Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, nicknamed “the Monster” for his formidable intellect, forcefulness and devotion to European integration, is also being identified as some sort of Rasputin, poisoning what would otherwise be courteous and smooth talks. Again, it’s worth pointing out, something of a deluded outlook.
The truth about Brexit is that it was always going to hurt the UK. It means less trade with Europe, much more restricted movement of people and lower investment. That is always bad for economic growth. No possible deal could be superior to the completely free and frictionless single market, with its guarantees of access and safeguards against subsidies and abuse. It was a British-inspired free market Thatcherite project, and for 25 years has boosted economic growth across the continent. The UK was in an especially privileged position as the only major economy outside the eurozone, and thus able to depreciate the pound as required. All this will go, no matter how large Ms May’s majority turns out to be or how much the British press poke fun at European officialdom or make offensive analogies with the Second World War. That’s not going to endear us to the Germans, or anyone else.
Britain needs the EU economically more than the EU needs Britain. If the British market was suddenly closed off, the EU wouldn’t notice nearly as much as if the EU single market were closed to Britain, because Britain earns so much of its living from trade, and so much trade is with the EU. The claims, often bogus, about what is really happening over Brexit will be scrutinised by our new In Fact section, designed to fight so-called “fake news”.
In such an unbalanced situation, the UK is necessarily going to find itself in a relatively weak bargaining position. This is normal when a smaller economy seeks access to a very large trading bloc. Ms May and David Davis have few cards to play, and some of the ones they have could easily hurt Britain more than they end up hurting the EU. The position of EU nationals, for example, is now under threat, though it is fair to add that the European Union could be said to be making unrealistic demands for the protection of their rights through EU courts and institutions that the UK will no longer be a member of. If Britain loses these families who have chosen to make their homes here, to work hard or start new businesses, then the country will be the poorer for it. That demonstrates how complex the negotiations are, and how Britain is no position to be “bloody difficult”.
This is not war. It is a set of talks that can make or break the British economy for decades to come. Britain is in a weak position. Goodwill is crucial, and that means the British must behave like grown-ups and, as Angela Merkel advises, drop any silly illusions about the process. It will be painful, but it need not be as bloody as it is becoming.