hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 9 July 2018

Vassal-Plus-Plus? The Humbling of Britain towards the end of May

“Anyone defending the proposal we have just agreed will find it like trying to polish a turd”.
Boris Johnson, British Foreign Secretary,
6 July 2018

Brexit Mayhem

9 July. Alphen, Netherlands. The Oxford English Dictionary defines vassal “as a holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance”. David Davis’s resignation had the air of inevitability about it. Forced to front up government policy in which he clearly did not believe and to be the fall guy for policy made elsewhere he had to walk. Last Friday’s Cabinet meeting at Chequers the country estate of the British prime minister was the final straw in Davis’s estrangement from May’s civil service-led filleting of Brexit. The Friday meeting also marked the Brexit humbling of Britain and the true beginning of the end of Theresa May’s premiership. And, the moment when I finally lost all respect for the elite who have run my country so disastrously. For two years now I have watched this Brexit farce. Last month I even heard ministers seriously debating whether Britain could adopt the Lichtenstein model for its future relationship with the EU? Britain? A top five world economic and military power? Lichtenstein with nukes… without the money!

Yes, I know, negotiating Brexit with the EU was always going to be difficult and the most that can be said for the May plan, such as it is, is that if the EU accepts it some 20% of the British economy would pretty much return to the original 1973 idea of a Common Market, albeit without the membership. It was the idea of a common market that was then sold to the British people. I say ‘sold’ for even a cursory glance at the 1957 Treaty of Rome and its commitment to “ever closer union” would have revealed the gap between what the British people were told and the real ambition of the European Project. It is an elite lie that has dogged Britain’s membership ever since and led eventually to Brexit.

As for the Brexit negotiations themselves, the May plan is what you get when one side does not believe in its negotiating mission and the other is led by ideological fanatics.  The negotiations, if you can call them that, were bound to be difficult the moment the Commission were put in charge of on the EU side, hell-bent on delivering a punishment beating to Britain “pour encourager les autres” a la Voltaire, and to teach the British people a lesson about power for an egregious act of democracy.  At best, Britain’s position throughout has been, “would you awfully mind if…? No? OK then”. The Commission’s lines was, “resistance is futile”. At worse, there has been collusion between Britain’s negotiators and the Commission to destroy Brexit.

Perhaps the 2016 Brexit referendum will come to be seen as the last meaningful vote in Europe, the last meaningful act of democracy when we the little people were permitted to vote on a big issue. Or perhaps not, given the 2016 referendum now seems to have become simply yet another powerless act of people powerlessness. Revenge really is a dish served cold.

How did this happen?

Theresa May has patently not been up to the job of Brexit.  Some in the Conservative Party had hoped for Maggie Thatcher reborn, they got Maggie Maybe instead. The plan she presented on Friday when she, at last, imposed some leadership over her rabble of a Cabinet, was a much diluted version of the plan she should have presented two years ago at the beginning of the negotiations, together with serious preparations for no deal. Rather, from Lancaster House to Florence to Mansion House her dithering has made matters far worse than they needed to be, compounded by an appallingly ill-judged 2016 general election.

The Whitehall Establishment set out to stymie Brexit and by hook or crook captured a prime minister that shorn of her own advisers had little or no idea what to do herself.  David Cameron used to call her the ‘submarine because she rarely ever surfaced. Now we know why. Things were clearly going awry with Brexit when Phillip Hammond, the anointed representative of the City of London on Earth went quiet. Job done! Brexit blocked. No need to say anything. Let the Brexiteers fume and fumble for they had been successfully marginalised.  As for the Brexiteers, blow hards from beginning to end.

As to be expected Oliver Robbins, May's Chief Negotiator, failed to land a single hit on either Merkel-backed Barnier or Selmayr.  He must have enjoyed a certain Mandarin schadenfreude (appropriate word in this context) when he reported to ministers a few days ago that a bad deal was the only possible deal.  Historians I am sure will one day tell the story how Whitehall and Brussels colluded to kill Brexit and inflict on the British voter the same fate that was imposed on past ballot box dissenters in France, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands.  Sadly, and yet again, this disaster reveals a London elite Establishment that does not believe in Britain or the British people. They are so imbued with a culture of managing British decline that they do just that, manage British decline…and not very well.

What will happen now to Britain? 

This is a defining moment in the centuries-long story of Britain as a serious power. Or, rather, it may well be the end of it. Maggie Maybe’s rejection of a desperately-needed increase in defence expenditure was about far more than defence.  It was about an elite that sees Britain as Little Britain, no longer serious about Britain’s place in the world, preferring instead to see foreign and security policy as little more than strategic virtue-signalling. A place in which plane-less aircraft carriers are offered as symbols of ‘might’ but where in reality real policy, power and influence – the stuff with which democracies preserve the legitimate peace – are but chimeras of pretence.

My reasons for campaigning for Remain in spite of my concerns about the EU and democracy have been well-documented in these pages.  It was and is my firm belief that Britain should stay and fight for a Europe of Nations a la de Gaulle, that dangerous geopolitics demands Britain fully commit to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe to confirm the freedoms they won so painfully during the Cold War, including freedom of movement.  That Europe is simply too close and too important for Britain to lack either a voice or influence over it.  Above all, at the time of the referendum, I wondered if the British elite was up to the task of Brexit. The answer is clearly not. Rather, the Brexit now on offer is a hokey-cokey Brexit leaving Britain neither in nor out of the EU – vassal plus, plus.

The moment the Commission signalled they were determined to give Britain and the British a punishment beating the only real options on the table were to fight or capitulate. There was no third way. If led with vigour and accomplishment Britain, a major trading power and security actor could have fought for a far better deal than this. Britain had a lot of cards to play but Maggie Maybe refused to use any of them. Barnier, on the other hand, used every trick in the book to force Britain into servitude, most notably the tail wagging dog gambit of the inner-Irish border.  It is now hard to understand just what May, the Department for [not] Exiting the European Union, David Davis, Liam Fox and Oliver Robbins have being doing at great taxpayer’s expense for the past two years. It would have been far cheaper simply to have surrendered early.

Now, I fear for the future of my once-great country. The humbling of Britain and its submission to Brussels means that rather than ‘taking back control’ the real power in the land will not be in it.  Far from returning sovereignty to Westminster and Whitehall, this Brexit will simply confirm that Brussels is really the boss over which no British voter will have any control. Jacob Rees Mogg is a politician I respect for his courage, but he is not to my taste.  He reeks of a warm beer, nostalgia for a mist-bound lost England which never existed that whilst comforting to some offers little on the way of hope for the New Britain that needs to be built if social and political cohesion is ever to be restored. Still, ‘JRM’ is right about one thing – this Brexit reduces Britain to a vassal state and in so doing again leads one to question the future of the United Kingdom. Why would the Scots stay in a Union ‘governed’ by a Westminster that has proved itself incapable of governing Britain? What is the point of a Union that has to all intents and purposes ceded control of Northern Ireland to the Brussels-Dublin axis?

What does this Brexit mean for Europe?

The implications for Europe are also profound. This week Donald Trump will demand more of his European allies at the NATO Summit in Brussels.  He is likely to get little more than a metaphorical ‘so what’ shrug of the shoulders from Theresa May, in spite of last week’s letter from Secretary of Defense Mattis demanding Britain do more if London wants to remain America’s ‘partner of choice’.  You see, May has not just failed to deliver the Brexit she promised, her lack of strategic vision is breaking Britain’s strategic spirit.  Unless a new leader is found and fast I fear that my country will retreat behind its nuclear shield, into itself, and effectively disengage so as to continue with the destructive navel-gazing that has already done so much damage.  Most of the British people will hate this deal, or rather the final deal which emerges after May is forced by the EU to concede yet more ground.  They will hate May for it, but they will also hate ‘Europe’ too.

The EU? The Brexit behaviour and attitude of Barnier, Selmayr and Juncker have simply confirmed to many that unless the democracies check the Commission Europe is on the road to some form of bureaucratic dictatorship. Encouraged by the humbling of Britain the Commission will no doubt interpret the existing treaties ever more in its favour and play the member-states off against each other as it seeks to grab ever more power in the name of ever more ‘Europe’. The Commission will also use the rubber-stamp European Parliament to legitimise its power grab and condemn as ‘populists’ all and any who dare to dissent.  One senior Commission official once told me that my dissent was in danger of damaging his life work as if I had no right to challenge him even though his life work had enormous implications for my life and my freedom. The new Euro-Aristocracy?

What will happen next?

Discord is next. May’s Brexit deal will satisfy no-one – Brexiteer or Remainer alike. For the next decade, ‘Europe’ will remain THE toxic political issue of British politics. The high, hard Remainers who engineered this situation – high politics, high bureaucracy and big business – will no doubt hope that the deal is so bad the British people will eventually clamour to go back into the EU. The Brexiteers will hope that a real leader emerges that finally has the political courage to follow through on the Referendum vote and deliver Brexit 2.0, at whatever the cost. My bet is on the former. There is, however, two big imponderables: the state of the EU in a decade and for that matter Britain.  One thing is clear, the relationships between Britain and many of its closest European allies have been damaged profoundly and will it take a long-time for trust to be rebuilt on both sides.

Here’s the twist. For all its imperfections a failure to prepare for any alternative means the ‘turd’ on offer is now the only ‘turd’ in town, which is why the Brexiteers, in the end, supported it. The Chequers meeting was timed to take place on the eve of Europe’s long slumber so officials can now stitch up a fait accompli.  The only hope left is that THIS plan is accepted by the EU in its entirety and quickly. The alternative is no deal. The challenge for the other EU member-states is to call off the Commission attack dogs, with Germany to the fore. That Brussels consciously avoids any triumphalism. That Britain does not retreat into an enormous post-Brexit sulk. That both sides make enormous efforts not to humiliate Britain and to make the plan work. You see there is a world beyond Brexit for ALL Europeans and it is getting more dangerous by the day. It was that observation that made me decide in 2016 that on balance I would campaign for Remain. I have not changed my mind.   
Statecraft, for the most part, is the art of making bad deals work. As Guy Verhofstadt has rightly said, “the devil is in the detail”. There is one hell of a devil also in the politics of all this. May’s plan may be the only deal on offer, but there is another game in town. Maybe, just maybe, last week’s letter from German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer questioning the Commission’s hard-line is the start of what should be the real war of which Brexit was but a forlorn battle: the taking back of control by the EU member-states from the European Commission.

Vassal plus, plus - the humbling of Britain at the end of May. What a bloody mess! Let’s hope England win the World Cup. C’mon England!

Julian Lindley-French

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