Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The void between how so many foreigners imagine UK will act during the Brexit negotiations and what we here consider obvious is large and dangerous. Theresa May seems to me to have signalled her intentions very clearly, since the EU referendum, such that anyone with a sense of British Conservatism knew what she’d do. I even wrote an article in the Sun spelling it out in detail. Yet before her Lancaster House speech it was widely claimed that the UK government had given no hint as to its intentions.
We have a similar dynamic playing out in respect of the Brexit negotiations. Many commentators, partly amongst some sections of the UK press but, in this context, particularly amongst the international press, claim the British will inevitably do this or that in the Brexit negotiations that there is no possibility of us doing. That could be dangerous, because it could easily lead to mistakes in the negotiating process, in which EU27 leaders misplay their hands, wrongly anticipating the British will or won’t do this or that, leading to negotiations breaking down.
So, in case it helps, and in a spirit of public service here is a UK perspective.
1. There’s zero possibility of the UK agreeing to pay tens of billions of euros for a divorce bill before talking about a trade deal. So Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande can insist all they like that the divorce bill has to be agreed before we commence trade talks and that parallel talks are impossible and that those are the EU’s rules, but the blunt reality is that the alternatives are: a) parallel talks; b) no talks. It’s the EU’s call.
2. There’s zero possibility of the UK backing down and agreeing to retain free movement. A bizarre article in the New Yorker yesterday (one hopes Americans have some other source of information for how the Brexit negotiations will go, because that piece is wrong on just about everything, even down to the names of the officials involved) said that: “Many European officials believe that May will eventually soften her stance, because leaving the EU without a deal would be catastrophic.” No. She’s not going to soften her stance. And if she tried to soften her stance she would cease to be Prime Minister and the person that replaced her would not soften her stance either.
3. The European People’s Party MEP Manfred Weber said on the Today programme on Thursday that he hears the UK wants a trade deal, but in that case why are we leaving? In the UK our perspective is that we don’t see why we should find it any harder, or requiring of any more conditions, or any more dependent on accepting free movement, for us to do a trade deal with the EU than for Canada or Korea to do such deals.
4. The UK is not “requesting” a trade deal with EU and we aren’t interested in making any “concessions” to be “given” such a deal. Instead, we are proposing a trade deal because we believe the trade deal itself in the mutual interests of the EU and us. If the EU doesn’t think a trade deal with us is, in and of itself and with no further “sweeteners”, in their interests we will be philosophical about that & say “OK. Your call.”
5. We do not accept that the UK “inevitably has the weaker hand” in Brexit trade negotiations, as the New Yorker tells its readers we do. Even were it true that the economic damage to the UK would, in GDP terms, be larger than for the EU (which many Britons don’t accept — not only because of the trade deficit we run with the EU but, more crucially, because of the dependence of the EU’s finance and corporate sectors on the City), we think UK voters and politics will be more able to tolerate losing some GDP, in the short-term, than EU voters and politics will be. We believe our system and economy are solid, whilst the EU’s teeters on the brink. We can bear it. They can’t.
6. The UK does not believe itself a small country, or a modest player in the world dependent upon its EU connections for its global influence and prosperity, or a diplomatic naif liable to be exploited this way or that by more hardened negotiators. We believe ourselves one of the three or four most powerful countries in the world, a nuclear power, a permanent member of the Security Council, long-term cunning diplomatic player in global arenas, with many outside options beyond Europe if Europe walks away.
7. We believe it happens quite frequently that others in Europe need our money, our intelligence and security assistance, and our soldiers. And we believe that saying “If you want to get these things next time you need them, you’d better play nice” is not an appalling blackmail. It’s blunt statement of a few realities of life that others would do well to remember.
Now, all the above might be “delusional”. But it is the British perspective. And if other countries don’t grasp that, there’ll be a mess.