“Are you feeling lucky, punk? Go ahead, make my day!”
Theresa May, sorry Clint Eastwood, as Dirty Harry
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 January. Theresa May cut an unlikely Dirty Harry yesterday as she arrived in her tartan pyjamas to give her Global Britain speech at Lancaster House. That was at least the inference as she set out her twelve objectives to extricate Britain from the EU. As she spoke she must have would-be Euro-despot and chief European Parliament negotiator Guy Vershofstadt in mind. No deal was better than a bad deal for Brexit Britain, she said, and any attempt to ‘punish’ Britain would be met with a robust response. Time to dust off the Spitfires? Err, no. The far more sensible Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, yesterday told a private meeting in Brussels that there was no intention of ‘punishing’ Britain for leaving the EU. The aim, he said, was to seek a fair settlement for all. Still, the phoney Brexit war is now at an end. If May is to realise her ambitious objectives at the very least London will need to re-discover its long lost strategic mojo.
The speech itself was tinged at times with a little bit of Thatcher and a little bit of Churchill. Not surprisingly, many of Britain’s newspapers this morning are making the usual overblown references to the ferrous female as they do on such occasions. Britain is going to take back control of its law-making and borders, she said, and forge a new future as global free trading power. Britain, she said, would leave the single market and seek only to remain part of the customs union in those sectors where British industry is already part of an integrated supply chain, such as aerospace. To be frank, much of the speech was at last a statement of the bleeding obvious. Britain’s leaving of the single market is a no-brainer as a state cannot be a member of the single market and curb free movement within the EU. Indeed, for Brussels to concede one of the four fundamental treaty freedoms over Brexit would be tantamount to self-harm.
May did succeed in skilfully taking away much of the EU’s negotiating leverage. The message to the European Commission was clear; do you really want to deny European democracy, undermine European security, and further damage Europe’s already vulnerable economy by attacking Britain for Brexit? Britain, she said, is far too powerful and important a power to be intimidated. Rather, she called for a new ‘strategic partnership’ between the EU and Britain to the post-Brexit benefit of all.
The speech was not risk free. May could only have made such a speech because of three factors that have changed Britain’s strategic landscape since Brexit. First, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States means London suddenly has a powerful new ally in its Brexit negotiations. Second, in spite of dire warnings from economists (bloody useless economists) Britain had the fastest growing economy of all the G7 countries last year. Third, the strategic challenges Europe must face together mean it would be utter folly to alienate Britain, free Europe’s strongest intelligence, security and defence actor. As May said, “Britain is leaving the EU, but not leaving Europe”.
So, all well and good? Yes, but. It is high time Prime Minister May showed the leadership she showed yesterday and inject some much needed clarity into the post-Brexit torpor. And yes, she reminded fellow Europeans that given Britain’s huge trade deficit with the rest of the EU, and the access to global capital markets London affords, Europe needs Britain as much as Britain needs Europe (as it does).
May must be both resolute and careful at one and same time. Britain’s new ‘special relationship’ with President Trump will come at a price. Forget all the legalistic nonsense about Britain not being able to do a new trade deal with the Americans until after Britain has left the EU. Much of that deal can be in place well before Britain leaves, especially if President Trump decides unilaterally and informally to treat Britain’s goods and services preferentially. Equally, there is also much over which London disagrees with the Trump administration. Take NATO. Trump wants it to focus on counter-terrorism and not Russia, something Britain cannot and must not accept.
Another challenge will come from the Scottish Nationalists (SNP), which May must face down. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon wakes up every morning with only one thought on her mind; the destruction of the United Kingdom. Whether it be the EU or some other issue over which she can feign offence Sturgeon will do all she can to achieve her goal, because it is her only goal. May needs to point out forcefully and publicly to Sturgeon the hypocrisy of her position. The latter legitimised the UK-wide EU referendum by campaigning in it. By so doing she also legitimised the UK-wide result.
However, the main barrier to the realisation of May’s Global Britain vision is not in Brussels, Edinburgh, or Washington, it is in London. It has been fascinating to me how parts of Whitehall (not all) have raised roadblocks in the way of implementing Brexit. Almost all of those roadblocks have been procedural, i.e. about Britain’s inability to manage the process of Brexit. That speaks volumes about Whitehall. The key to yesterday’s speech was that it focused on power not process. This is because Britain’s future relationship with the EU will be decided by power not process. Having surrendered so much power to Brussels over the past forty or so years, Whitehall does not any longer understand power, its generation or its application. It will need to re-learn quickly.
Yes, Brexit will be complicated and yes, if May is to realise her vision she is going to have to begin the patient process of rebuilding all the competences a state needs to be ‘independent’. That ‘process’ will indeed take time. However, for Global Britain to be more than yet another empty British prime ministerial rhetorical flourish that is precisely the challenge May laid down to the British elite yesterday.
This morning President Juncker of the European Commission will respond to May’s speech. The Brexit phoney war is indeed over. “Go ahead, make my day…but can we please be friends afterwards?”