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I am not going to waste much time on the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers from his post as the UK’s ambassador to the European Union. It’s a shame when someone with a deep knowledge of their subject is forced out of their job. That said, it probably makes sense that our top man (or woman) in Brussels should, by and large, share the Government’s view of what is possible and what is not.
But, as I may have pointed out before, quoting the great Louis MacNeice, “The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever/But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather”.
Unless our new ambassador is a US-style political hack, he or she will inevitably come to much the same conclusion about our prospects for Brexit as Sir Ivan. Just as you cannot make bricks from straw, so truth cannot come from lies.
The negotiations that will follow Article 50 can only go one of two ways. Either the UK walks out, demanding a clean break and a reversion to WTO rules, or it agrees some form of deal that gives it access to the single market on terms that, for Leavers, would be almost impossible to stomach.
As Peter Mandelson pointed out to the FT a couple of weeks back, the talks will be by their nature asymmetric, with 27 members states on one side, led by the European Council and the Commission, and Britain on the other. Every one of the 27 will have a voice on what is “agreed” in Brussels. Every one of them will have to ratify whatever interim settlement is reached. And waiting in the wings will be the European Parliament itself and the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice – the latter the ultimate guarantor that what is proposed is consistent with the terms and ideals of the European Constitution.
The EU has been caused grave offence by Britain. Brexit is like a dagger aimed at its heart. The only way the remaining collective, already plagued by the continuing currency crisis and the swell of Muslim immigration, can hope to survive intact is by making it clear to the UK that it is not going to walk away from the mess it has created without paying a price.
We need to understand that. Our Government needs to understand that. Otherwise we are in danger straightaway of boxing ourselves into a corner. All the talk about going for a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, or a red, white and blue Brexit, presupposes that the choice is ours. Hardliners appear to think that we hold the whip hand. Europe in general, and Germany in particular, will not, they assure us, agree to any deal that makes it harder for their manufacturers to sell cars to the UK. The fact that German carmakers have repeatedly denied this and given their backing to Berlin’s EU-First strategy is dismissed as so much posturing.
In the same way, there is an assumption that the City of London will continue to dominate Eurozone trading no matter what. The fact that banks in London are already making overtures to Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin is viewed as an empty threat. When Donald Trump’s choice as commerce secretary invites EU governments to join Wall Street in a planned asset-strip of the Square Mile, Leavers tap the sides of their noses, indicating that it will never happen.
And why will it not happen? Because David Davis and Liam Fox will run rings round these Continental johnnies, that’s why. And if ever they should falter (which they won’t), we’ll still have Boris and Theresa May, the big guns of international diplomacy. Never mind that the PM and the foreign secretary know as much about banking and international trade as Tony Blair knows about bringing peace to the Middle East. Who cares that Boris is looked on as a Wodehousian figure in Europe and that Mrs May is seen as a Sphinx without a secret. They’ll know what to do. Oh yes.
The only way out for Britain if it refuses to make concessions on the free movement of people and payments into the EU budget is for us to cut the palaver and go for broke. At that point, while cranking up the laborious business of negotiating one-on-one trade deals across the world – a process that will go on for many years – we might at least reach agreement on what to do about the millions of migrants who will be left stranded in countries other than their own and negotiate a level of tarrifs a point or two more generous than provided for under current WTO rules.
And that’s it. Deal done. QED. After that, all we have to worry about are the consequences.
Nobody knows what state the “independent” UK economy will be in three decades from now. Sadly, I shall not be around to find out. We might be thriving. We might even be the fifth-largest economy in the world – just as we were six months ago until we lost out in the rankings to France. Inspired by memories of Drake and Hawkins, Clive and Rhodes, we could be the acknowledged masters of global enterprise, respected wherever we go, bolstered by our buccaneering bankers, sustained by the pride that comes from knowing that we, unlike the swine on the other side of the Channel, are masters of our fate.
Either that or it will be Back to the Seventies, when we went cap in hand to Brussels in a desperate bid to climb out of the financial hole we had dug for ourselves over the previous 30 years.
Or … Marine Le Pen will take over in France and the European Union will long since have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Mesdames, messieurs, faites vos jeux.