Continent cut off: the British delusion

THERE is an old, though sadly apocryphal, story of a Times headline that declared “Fog in channel. Continent cut off.” But the headline resonates because it is symbolic of the general British attitude towards our European neighbours. That attitude has been all too apparent in the Brexit negotiations, which hit a disastrous speed bump in Salzburg this week.

The British tend to feel that the Europeans are very lucky to have them as a neighbour. It was manifest when David Davis, shortly to become the UK’s chief negotiator, declared in May 2016 that “the first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal”. Or when Liam Fox, the trade secretary, said that a deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. German car makers, we were told, would insist on a deal that would let them sell BMWs and Volkswagens in the UK.

This blithe overconfidence has dogged Britain every step of the way. it was apparent in Theresa May’s “red lines” which stated that Britain would not be in the single market, customs union, or accept any jurisdiction from the European Court of Justice. This was a classic case of what I have dubbed the “psychic ballot paper” syndrome, that it was possible to divine the wishes of the electorate even though they had not been asked those specific questions. It was also a decision made by Theresa May, without consulting Parliament, to opt for the hardest possible Brexit despite the narrow nature of the victory.

Throughout the negotiations, Britain has emphasised its desire to have all the advantages of EU membership without the responsibilities, or “cakeism” as it is known. The EU has said that the four freedoms — goods, services, capital and people — cannot be divided. The Chequers deal advanced by Mrs May tried to opt for movement of goods and capital, but not services or people. It is no great surprise it has been rejected. If the EU gives way to Britain, the danger is that other countries will try to unpick the single market.

Civil servants who told ministers that the EU was unlikely to concede have been derided, or eased into retirement. Businesses who warned of the costs of a no deal Brexit have had their concerns dismissed. The British government has repeatedly tried to circumvent the negotiating procedure by bypassing Michel Barnier, the EU’s point man, and talking to national governments. This has just added to the irritation of EU leaders.

That progress has been made at all is down to the fudging of key issues. Last December’s deal allowed negotiations to proceed but only through the insertion of the “backstop” clause to prevent a hard border in Ireland. The British have tended to treat this clause as a minor inconvenience or a bureaucratic nicety; the EU sees it as a binding commitment.

And what is all this for? The great claim is that Britain will be free to strike deals round the world, to trade with fast-growing emerging markets rather than sluggish Europe. But Germany has no problems trading with such markets while in the EU; China is its biggest trading partner. An isolated UK will be in a weak position to strike deals on its own; the US, under Trump, will argue for the abandonment of food controls and the right to sell private services to the NHS; India will insist on more visas for its citizens, and so on. This will not be “taking back control”.

Perhaps a fudge will be achieved at the last minute; that is the EU way. Perhaps the British will learn that they depend on EU trade and always will. But attitudes may harden further. Iain Martin in today’s Times writes that the Salzburg fiasco shows that the EU “is a terrible organisation we should be glad to leave”. We are planning to cut off the continent again.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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