14 November 2018
Originally published by Conservative Home.
Try a little thought experiment. Can you imagine a Brexit outcome so appalling that Leavers would rather stay in than accept it, and Remainers would rather leave cleanly than accept it?
It’s quite a challenge, but let’s have a go. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Britain ended up with all the costs and obligations of EU membership, but with no voice, no vote and no veto. Suppose we had to accept all the EU’s rules – on technical standards, on environmental protection, on labour law – but no longer had any say over what those rules should be. Suppose we had to submit to a trade and tariff regime designed solely to benefit the other 27. I hope both sides could agree that such an outcome would be the worst of all possible worlds.
And yet, if reports are to be believed, that is where the talks have ended up. First, under the transition, we shall explicitly be non-voting members for two years. As Brussels has spelt out with brutal clarity, the only change will be that Britain loses its Commissioner, its MEPs and its vote in Council. Then, under the backstop, that status, or something very like it, will be imposed on us in semi-perpetuity.
Surely no one, Remain or Leave, can favour such an outcome. As regular readers will know, I have been arguing since polling day for moderation. I was prepared to accept any compromise – including EFTA and including Chequers – provided it restored the supremacy of our laws. But the purgatory that now beckons is surely, by any definition, worse than either staying or leaving.
How have we come to this point? Through cowardice and lack of vision, I’m afraid. From the start, our objective was simply to reach a deal – any deal. Our negotiators, shell-shocked by the referendum result, approached the talks in a spirit of damage limitation. They never seriously contemplated walking away, and the other side smelt their desperation.
To be fair, our officials were not helped by the noises coming out of Westminster. How would you expect EU negotiators to react when senior British politicians urge them to hang tough and force a second referendum? We might view Tony Blair, John Major and Nick Clegg as has-beens but, believe me, they are seen in Brussels as men of influence.
So we fell into a pattern. Britain would make some new concession in the hope of unlocking a deal; Brussels would pocket the concession and demand more; and – incredibly – British Remainers would cheer. The UK agreed to hand over more money than was due; accepted the EU’s absurd and illogical sequencing; made an unconditional security guarantee; offered to copy EU standards; and promised not to be more competitive than its neighbours. Each time, the EU brusquely demanded “more movement”. Each time, Britain rushed to comply.
Which brings us to where we are – facing colonial rule from Brussels, of the sort the EU imposed on Bosnia following the Yugoslav war.
I am not one of those Brexiteers who half-favoured no deal all along. On the contrary, I was proposing moderation on this website even before the vote, and have repeated that call many times since. But, paradoxically, Britain’s reluctance to countenance no deal has made such an outcome likelier. We have reached the point where the terms on offer are less attractive than either a WTO-based Brexit or a second referendum.
This last point is critical. I suspect that two contradictory arguments will now be wheeled out before wavering MPs. Europhiles will be told that the deal, backstop and all, is better than “crashing out” on WTO terms. Conversely, Eurosceptics will be told that, if they don’t approve the deal, Parliament might vote to extend Article 50, thus imperilling Brexit. These two lines of argument can’t both be true, of course; and, in reality, neither of them is.
Talking of Bosnia, I recall a conversation some years ago with the EU’s High Commissioner there – the man with the power to sack local politicians if they didn’t toe the approved Brussels line. He told me, in a pleased tone, that the Serbs thought he was too pro-Muslim while the Muslims thought he was too pro-Serb. “If they are all unhappy,” he concluded, genially, “I must be doing something right”. “Or maybe if everyone is unhappy,” I responded, “it’s because you’re doing something wrong”.
Well, that’s the point we reached with these talks. We’re invited to believe that if Boris Johnson and Jo Johnson, from opposite ends of the Brexit spectrum, both oppose the deal, it can’t be too bad. In fact, both Johnsons oppose it because it is a lamentable failure of statecraft. Boris was no Brexit headbanger: he came out for Leave only after the EU refused to give David Cameron any powers back. And Jo is no Remoaner: he has spent two years in government trying to deliver a reasonable Brexit. If neither of them will back the deal, that tells us something.
There is still time – just – to recover our position. As things stand, the backstop has no legal force. The moment it finds its way into a treaty, it will be binding. If any MPs or Cabinet Ministers oppose the current approach, now is their chance to act. There won’t be another.
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