The value in Theresa May’s narrow vision and plodding virtues

Britain’s Eurosceptics are wrong: other countries are not clamouring to leave the EU

Theresa May has the power to stun smart people with old news. This week Britain's prime minister will recapitulate her openness to life outside the single market, perhaps even the customs union, for the higher treasure of national self-rule.

Foreign capitals may begin to understand that she means it. Currency traders will taste what gallows humorists call the “May diet”: she opens her mouth and just watch those pounds fall.

The best and worst thing about this prime minister is a certain narrowness of vision. She can set a goal and chase it with a greyhound’s blinkers. It is why she simultaneously demands less immigration, even of the skilled kind, and a “global Britain”. To her, they are discrete projects.

Someone more given to abstract reasoning would see that one confounds the other. But then – and this is where her plodding virtues kick in – someone more given to abstract reasoning would treat EU exit as less a technical procedure than a historic moment: the start of the end of the EU itself.


They would infer too much from one close referendum in one unusually Eurosceptic nation, multiply it by recent crises of the euro and refugee absorption, and come up with the most excitable possible account of where events are heading.

‘Democratic liberation’

As he argued for exit last year, Michael Gove, then in the cabinet, willed the "democratic liberation of a whole continent". His recent interviewee, US president-elect Donald Trump, sees little future in the "vehicle for Germany" based in Brussels. There are paler versions of this view among ministers, conservatism's pamphleteers and donors to the Leave campaign.

Because most Leave voters were practical sorts vexed by immigration, we forget the intellectual commitment of some of those who persuaded them. They do not just dislike the EU, they dislike it more than almost anything else.

For them, a coherent nation under a sovereign state is the way humans are meant to be governed. The EU constitutes something like an affront to nature and will be weeded out of existence like bad genes. The referendum gave evolution a nudge. They won it for all Europeans, you understand.

This sense of destiny explains their goodwill towards Trump and the quickness to pin the Ukraine crisis on European over-reach. They have no particular taste for strongmen. They mean it when they talk up their own idealism. Russian president Vladimir Putin and Trump just happen to be useful as antagonists of the real, doomed foe, as usherers-in of a more familiar world.

Once you smell the cold war residue on them (my enemy's enemy is my accomplice), you wonder if these ideologues might be as prescient now as their forebears were before 1989. Pierre Moscovici, the European economic affairs commissioner, is brave to disregard as "bad fantasy" any prospect of further EU departures.

Wounding memories

All the same, the evidence leans his way. The continent is not clamouring to leave the EU. If the referendum sparked a change in sentiment, it eludes Eurobarometer and other surveys. Brussels is less popular than a decade ago but still favoured over national governments.

Most member states have wounding memories of independence – war, dictatorship, penury – from which supranational institutions represent escape. The patience with the project in southern Europe, where sovereign debt crises born of the euro immiserated millions, is the only thing I have seen humble a federalist technocrat.

You need not share this deep faith in European destiny to recognise it as a – perhaps the – fact of politics in this part of the world. The EU survives on it. The notion that Britain did what some continentals are summoning the mettle to do any day now deserves a measure of Moscivician disdain. Joining the EU was their "democratic liberation".

If belief in the EU’s transience were confined to a sect of conservatives who, emotionally, never left university, it would be benign enough. But it addles the thoughts of people who matter. There are ministers and advisers who, pushed in private on the exit details, on the potential snags for trade, resort to the hope the EU will solve the problem by disappearing. Teleology is infectious as it saves you from thinking too hard.

Hugo Young captured an older version of this mentality in This Blessed Plot, his 1998 history of Britain and the EU. London's slightly arch elite could never believe the Europeans were serious about this fly-by-night plan for integration. The coal and steel community, the Common Market, the single currency: at every stage there was amused British disbelief, and therefore British unpreparedness. Bet against the EU if you will, but not with your foreign policy.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017