UK is drunk on sovereignty – and all puffed up with no place to go
Denis Staunton: Choice is now either hard Brexit, or leaving EU with no deal at all
When European Union leaders met on the Capitoline Hill last weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and renew their vows of unity and solidarity, Theresa May stayed away. Nobody was surprised or offended by her absence and there was no sense of loss or incompleteness, of a limb or even an extremity missing. It was as if the UK, which today starts its two-year countdown to departure, had already left.
Last June’s referendum result was a shock to the UK’s EU partners, as well as to the 48 per cent who voted to remain. But it is what happened since the vote that has ensured that Brexit will be a dramatic rupture, not only to the UK’s relationship with Europe but perhaps to the future of the UK itself. Europe has already reconciled itself to the consequences; in the UK, they are only beginning to reveal themselves.
As she starts the clock on two years of negotiations, May remains transfixed by the threat from her right flank and its supporters in the press
During the referendum campaign, David Cameron and his allies sought to press the Leave side into defining the future relationship with the EU which they favoured for a post-Brexit UK. Vote Leave’s primary strategist, Dominic Cummings, was determined to resist such pressure, refusing to answer the most basic questions, such as whether the UK should remain in the single market after it left the EU.
“Lots of people said to me ‘when are you going to set out the details of the UK-EU trade relationship if you win?’ What would have been the point of that?! Approximately nobody knows anything about the important details of how the EU works including the MPs who have spent years talking about it and the journalists who cover it – indeed, often those who talk about it most are the most ignorant,” Cummings wrote earlier this year.
No official blueprint
Some leading Brexiteers were less disciplined than Cummings, and a few weeks before the referendum, Michael Gove blurted out that the UK “should be out of the single market” after Brexit. Still, by the time the votes were counted in June, there was no single, official Brexit blueprint for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Even if there was, May would not have been bound by it when she became prime minister in July 2016 after a stillborn leadership campaign which left no hostages to fortune. For the first few months of her premiership, May - who had campaigned imperceptibly for Remain – contented herself with repeating that “Brexit means Brexit”.
But in her speech to the Conservative party conference in October, the prime minister made a number of rash and unnecessary commitments which set the country on course for a hard Brexit. She promised to trigger article 50 by the end of March, squandering one of the few points of leverage she had in negotiations with the EU, the determination of their timing.
She said she wanted free trade in goods and services with the EU but she made clear that sovereignty and immigration control would trump economic arguments.
“Let’s state one thing loud and clear: we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s not going to happen,” she said.
By January, May’s position had hardened into a flat declaration that the UK would leave the single market and the central elements of the customs union. She was still promising a “frictionless” Border in Ireland and an accommodation of the concerns of Scotland, where a majority voted to remain in the EU. But she left no doubt that, once again, controlling immigration and escaping the oversight of the European court formed the deep red lines in her negotiating strategy.
Spooked by Ukip’s threat to its seats in the north of England, Labour accepted May’s definition of Brexit and trooped in behind the Conservatives to authorise her to trigger article 50 with no preconditions. Now that Ukip has imploded, losing its biggest donor and its only MP in the space of a month, Labour has woken up to the fact that most of its supporters voted Remain and oppose a hard Brexit.
Their conversion has come too late to halt the debate in the UK, which is settling into a choice between May’s hard Brexit and the option favoured by the right-wing ultras in her party - leaving the EU with no deal at all. The prime minister herself said that no deal would be better than a bad deal, although Brexit secretary David Davis admitted last week that the government has made no assessment of the cost of crashing out of the EU.
The government’s tone has softened in recent days, and Davis acknowledged this week that immigration from the EU could actually increase after Brexit. The UK’s economy remains perky, confounding the Remainers’ warnings of an immediate slump after the referendum and reassuring those who backed Brexit about their future outside the EU.
Scotland’s parliament last night voted in favour of a second independence referendum and although May can delay the vote until after Brexit, it will almost certainly happen soon afterwards. Meanwhile, the UK’s efforts to find new markets beyond the EU are meeting the reality that no market is as large or as promising as Europe’s and that countries such as India want new trade deals to include easier immigration into the UK.
As she starts the clock on two years of negotiations, May remains transfixed by the threat from her right flank and its supporters in the press. But when she lifts her gaze she may see the peril her chosen strategy poses to the integrity of the UK as she takes it on a lonely journey out of the EU, drunk on a notion of sovereignty and all puffed up with no place to go.