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The options put before us in the wake of last year’s referendum were as follows: (1) a hard Brexit, in which we secured a minimalist deal that sorted out the issue of citizens’ rights and pretty well nothing else; (2) a soft Brexit, allowing us to rent space in the Single Market and the Customs Union while giving up up our seats on the European Commission, the European Council, the Court of Justice and the Strasbourg parliament; or (3) No Deal, leading to a state of undeclared war between the UK and its closest neighbours and major trading partners.
The indications are that option 3, No Deal, is now the most likely to be achieved, if “achieved” is the word. The Tory party, reduced to a rabble, imagines that it is cleverly biding its time, getting ready to strike when the EU is so fed up and preoccupied with other matters that it just says yes to whatever gets Britain off its back. By ambushing them, we would apparently end up being offered everything we want in return for sweet sod-all. Now that they realise that this not going to happen, Tory headliners are moving on to No Deal, which they argue is better than a bad deal, with bad deal defined as any settlement that falls short of their full list of demands.
Some – mainly Vince Cable and Tony Blair – argue that there is, in fact, a fourth option, involving a second referendum in which voters come to their senses and endorse the abandonment of Article 50. I would go along with that if I could detect any groundswell of support for it among the general public. But I can’t. Rather, I suspect, the people just want to get the bloody thing sorted, one way or the other. It may be important, but, unlike actual warfare, it’s also intensely boring. In any case, what if a second vote confirmed the desire to leave? What then? What would the response be of the 27? Would they not be tempted to say, “The Hell with them!”? “If they want No Deal, let’s give it to them.”
Even if, against the odds, we did decide to call the calling off off, what sort of deal would we then be offered? It would take a decade at least for our reputation to recover, during which the EU would move on, with no one (quite rightly) interested in our opinions. We would be sat on the naughty step for a generation. Would we still get our rebate? Would we have to sign up to the euro? Would we be required to join the Schengen zone? Or would we simply be regarded as an export market, with our trade deficit barely held in check by a presumed reprise for the City of London? Nobody knows.
But consider the alternative: option 5. What if we settled our divorce bill for around £50 billion, payable over five years, agreed a deal on citizens rights, to be supervised jointly by a committee of judges drawn from the European Court of Justice and Britain’s Supreme Court, and then went on to negotiate access to the single market on the same basis as Canada, but with the bonus of continued passport rights for the City? Europe could wear that, and so could we.
Face it, the hour is late. Britain has not yet crossed the Brexit Rubicon, but it is midstream up to its neck. David Davis has sent an anorexic team to Brussels this week, instructed to talk about nothing other than citizens rights. Money, the EU’s sine qua non, will not be discussed. The Secretary of State himself will turn up just long enough to justify a public slanging match with his EU opposite number Michel Barnier. Whatever tactics Davis may have in mind, the strategy seems to be all or nothing, with nothing as almost the preferred outcome.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that those on our side of the table have given up. They are negotiating to fail. However belatedly, they have come to accept that the cake-and-eat-it option was never more than half-baked and that the chaos in Downing Street has to be balanced by chaos in Brussels, which at least shares out the blame. Either that or the joke is on us. Perhaps, operating behind the distractions of the Downing Street psychodrama, they are in fact working on a package that gives the EU most of what it wants, hoping that no one will notice. Stranger thing have happened, but not many and not recently.
Ask yourselves, if you were the 27, with problems building up at every turn, how much of your precious time would you continue to give to the bloody Brits, who seem to want everything while giving nothing in return and look increasingly dead-set on turning Brexit into the diplomatic version of Dunkirk?