Slowly but surely the European Union and the United Kingdom are crawling their way to an accommodation. Behind all the squawking and shouting progress is steadily being made. That it is difficult and fraught is not surprising, nor should it be alarming. This is a process that has no precedent. That it is in both sides interests to reach an amicable agreement ought to be clear. Working out an amicable and practical set of arrangements that benefits both sides should be something that commands widespread support and noises off should not deter either side from steadfastly moving to that goal.
Ever since the Government triggered Article 50, with the full and broad support of both Houses of Parliament, the UK has been clearly and firmly set on the path of leaving the European Union. No-one on either side of the English Channel should be in any doubt about it. Although the referendum result was narrow, the vote in the Commons and the Lords was not. Opinion polling shows that British public opinion remains steadfastly, if narrowly, in favour of leaving the EU. The day-to-day domestic political challenges Theresa May faces should not obscure the fact that she has all the authority and political strength she needs to conduct the Brexit discussions and conclude an agreement – and conclude one she will.
Focussed as we have become on our own politics it is easy to forget that there are twenty-seven other heads of government who each have their own politics to think about. In particular Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has just been through very difficult national elections, where she lost significant ground to the far right, who now have seats in the Bundestag. The Chancellor is still struggling to form a viable government, something she should be able to do in the next few weeks. It was never likely that significant public progress could be made in the Brexit discussions until Germany had sorted out a government for itself. With that prospect now in sight Merkel’s public language is changing rapidly.
Brexit is a political process. The needs of business and trade come squarely second to the prevailing political mood. The result of the British democratic process must be respected, as must the prevailing political mood and democratic processes of our continental neighbours. Too often in recent times some British politicians have been too careless and cavalier in their language about our nearest neighbours. The political project that is the European Union was borne out of the desire across the continent that a repetition of the two great catastrophes of the First and Second World Wars should never again be repeated. That is why the political project has always taken precedence over the economic one. These wars cost Britain dear, a fact that as we continue to mark the centenary of the First World War we are continually reminded about, but in the end our experience was fundamentally different to that of our continental friends. In the end this different experience has played out in our politics and our choice about EU membership, but we too need to remember the lessons of history.
Today the national politics of Europe is fragile. The far right is on the move not only in Germany. France is engaged on a new and yet to be proven political experiment, Spain is grappling with separatism, Italy’s democracy is fragile, Greece continues to suffer, the eastern members of the EU are finding it tough going. Peace and stability, history teaches us, cannot and should not be taken for granted. For all its faults our democratic process is fundamentally strong, our Parliament works, but that is not the universal experience of our European neighbours. Outside of the EU Britain will sit, but not outside of Europe. In or out of EU structures our future is inextricably linked to that of our nearest neighbours, as it has been throughout our history. It is in our profound political as well as economic self-interest that we reach a constructive and amicable agreement with the European Union. This week we caught a glimpse of the fact that we are a step closer to achieving it.