“Governments lose respect and legitimacy as they seem to become more detached, more self-interested and more powerless. The EU, attempting to transcend national politics, makes things worse. Hence the rise of angry forms of ‘populism’ democracy detached from traditional politics.”
Professor Robert Tombs
The week that Brexit died
Alphen, Netherlands. 21 January. Brexit died last week with the crushing of May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Who killed Brexit and what now? The only choice the British people now have is between May’s Hotel California, ‘you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave’ Withdrawal Agreement, something far, far worse akin to The Great Escape’s Stalag Luft 3 in which a soft Britain will be permanently incarcerated or stay, pay, but at least have a say. That my once great country faces such a choice makes my blood boil as I am not some whingeing Remoaner. Yes, I campaigned for Remain on geopolitical grounds but unlike many, I accepted the result of the 2016 Referendum. Vassal-state plus?
My essential point is this; we are where we are and the purpose of this blog is to identify optimal strategic outcomes in often sub-optimal strategic circumstances. Therefore, given the Hobson’s choice (i.e. no real choice) now being imposed upon Britain and its people analytically the by far least bad option available is for Britain to remain a member-state of the EU, but make life hell for Brussels and the intransigent fundamentalist federalists therein. Were there a deal on offer that would offer real ‘take back control’ sovereignty I would recommend it, but I find it hard to recommend the disastrous stew of a compromise that is being cooked up that will probably end Britain as a power, and possibly as a country.
Who killed Brexit?
From that June day in 2016 when the Leave campaign won by over a million votes in what was sold as a binding in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the largest ever exercise in British democracy, a successful counter-insurgency has been mounted against it. It has been led by a British Establishment and its friends in Brussels who at best do not believe in Brexit or at worst have ‘systematically’ herded the British people towards this moment. There are reasons for this. As Christopher Bickerton has argued, for many in the elite EU states are no longer the nation-states to which many of us still owe our allegiance, and which still act as the centre of democratic gravity in Europe remain for millions of people. They have instead become ‘member-states’ of an EU in which networks of elites exist separate and divorced from the millions of ordinary citizens.
It is this multifaceted elite that killed Brexit. They include other-worldly academics who buy into ‘ever closer union’ and the European super-state fantasy. They refuse to see that all such a ‘state’ would realise is the centralisation of ever more power on an unaccountable Brussels few. Whilst the most vocal they are perhaps the least influential part of the anti-Brexit coalition. Particularly influential are the globalised business elite to which people like Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond is close. The only loyalty of such people is to their shareholders and balance sheets. Then there are the Metropolitan lefty London elite that one funds in the BBC and other organs of the Fourth Estate who talk ‘Europe’ but do not understand it. For them the nation-state is the fashionable root of all evil and an easy solution to a world-view well divorced from either the reality of power or history.
Then there are Britain’s Members of Parliament. One thing that has struck me listening to British MPs discuss ‘Europe’ of late is how few of them have any real understanding of the deep structural issues of power, governance and democracy that are implicit in Brexit. Push them ever-so-slightly on substance and they collapse into a not-so-towering heap of meaningless slogans. Brexit has too often fast become the utterly mediocre in pursuit of the utterly misunderstood via the often totally incomprehensible. Such people often talk of a blind Brexit. In fact, Parliament is full of short-term, blind Remainers.
Now, if all of the above sounds arrogant then guilty as charged. I have several EU-related degrees and many books and articles to my name. I have also worked for the EU and spent a lot of my long career in and around Brussels. It is my firm belief that Europeans need something like ‘Europe’ but not this self-interested, ‘we know best’, taxpayer’s money is EU money, Brussels. ‘Brussels’ is an eternal struggle between the advocates of ever closer union, ever more Europe and those who advocate a more pragmatic Europe. Right now, the influence of those who advocate super-state Europe have been blunted but their ambitions remain. It is vital Britain does not abandon pragmatic Europe, not least because such a ‘Europe’ is a vital British interest.
A European super-alliance
In short, I am a Realist Remainer. Brexit was always about the relationship between Britain and Europe ten, twenty, thirty years hence and my on balance judgement at the time of the referendum was that Britain needed to be in the EU helping to shape it. This is not because I believe in Euro-theology, but rather because I want to stop it. My vision is for a European super-alliance of free nation-states. Critically, neither Britain nor Continental Europe has ever fared well when Britain has stood aside from the eternal game of power that is ‘Europe’, whatever mantle within which it is cloaked. Europeans face a range of growing threats which must also be faced together and which the elite obsession with ever closer political union, the shape of institutions and the consequent emaciation of the nation-state prevents.
My Brexiteer friends tell me that the history of Britain in the EU reveals a once powerful country reduced to little more than a minority voice with the very idea of ‘Europe’ having helped loosen the ties between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now, I have some sympathy for that because the creation of an alternative pole of power within the UK in the form of Brussels, allied to parallel political devolution has clearly weakened the bonds that have traditionally bound Britain together. Where I disagree with Brexiteers is the extent to which the EU is the real factor in British decline. Of far more importance to me is the culture of unnecessary declinism that has infected Britain’s elite establishment allied to a strange kind of strategic political correctness in which all British history must now be seen as a form of political self-flagellation. As an Oxford historian, the one thing I will not do is judge the past with the present. That is just bad history.
In fact, the history of Britain since the 1707 Act of Union between England, Wales and Scotland has always been about power and representation and the crafting of a strategic narrative, a story of Britain, to accommodate the two strands. The unnecessary loss of strategic mojo by Britain’s inept and irresolute elite Establishment is the real reason for the irresolution evident during the Brexit negotiations. Ineptitude and irresolution confirmed to me by friends inside the European Commission who were amazed at how easily Britain’s negotiators rolled over on issues they assumed were vital for London.
The other Great Escape?
Now that Brexit is effectively dead how can Britain escape from the political mess its leaders have created? Not with Theresa May at the helm. She may be stoic and resilient but she is also visionless and lacks the leadership skills to deliver on anything other than a Brexit in name only. A Brexit in which the British ‘stay’, pay but have no say over the customs union and Single Market as part of a deal some are now mischievously calling Common Market 2.0. Some want a second Brexit referendum in the hope that it will wish away the first one. Given the social and political fragility of the country, I cannot imagine the damage that such a ‘now get it right this time, you morons’ vote would do. Those in Parliament advocating such a vote are the very same people who agreed prior to the referendum to sub-contract the decision on Britain’s future partnership with the EU to the people. If Remainers won second time around it is hard for me to see how millions of my fellow citizens could trust the result of such a vote which they would undoubtedly see as a Remainer Establishment stitch-up. What price democracy then?
No, and here I know I will be shot at for this suggestion which goes against every grain of my belief in democracy. This is particularly so as my politics has always been akin to that of Churchill’s father Lord Randolph Churchill, “Trust the people!” However, given the circumstances and the stakes Britain needs a new leader who not only treats the British people as grown-ups and pushes through the smoke and mirrors Whitehall loves to mask its failure, but also admits to the colossal failure of leadership implicit in the Brexit fiasco. This leader would probably need to emerge in the wake of an ever more likely General Election and from beyond the failed May-Corbyn political generation. Critically, such a ‘leader’ would have to have the political courage, and hopefully, the mandate, to simply admit that remaining within the EU is the least unpalatable strategic choice Britain now faces given the loss of any chance of a meaningful Brexit.
In return for such a decision that same leader would also have to say that a return to a pre-referendum status quo ante is also impossible. And, that in return for the overturning of the June 2016 plebiscite such a leader would promise not only to stop ever closer political union but to mean it. He or she would thus, at the very least, need to introduce legislation strengthening the so-called Constitutional Lock preventing the transfer of any more British sovereignty, power and/or money to Brussels without the specific consent of the people in the form of referenda. After all, the precedent for such votes on important constitutional questions has now been established. There would also need to be a full public enquiry into the Brexit fiasco that is properly conducted and with findings published before all those involved are safely ennobled in the House of Lords, retired or both. Free movement? All European leaders need to begin a full and frank debate of the impact of free movement on host communities. If not, I fear Brexit is just the beginning of a populist surge across Europe.
Britain is not alone
The good news is that Britain is not alone. Yes, there are those in Brussels who see Britain as little more than a tethered offshore fat cow to be milked for their grandiose EU projects. Yes, there are those in Brussels that if Britain force majeure changed its mind over Brexit would see it as a masterstroke of grand manipulation similar to what happened when voters in Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Ireland objected in 2005 to the planned Constitutional Treaty. All the Brussels federalists did then was to change the ‘etiquette’ on the bottle and call it a Constitutional Treaty. For these people ‘Europe’ is a bit like the Borg Empire in Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated”.
There are also many across Europe who would welcome an activist Britain within the EU fully committed to ensuring the EU remains what it always should have been – a strategic enabling mechanism for the states that comprise it. Nothing more, nothing less. A new report just out from the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy entitled European Variations makes the case clearly for such a Europe. Brexit, it suggests, is an EU failure and that ever closer political union must be stopped. A ‘one-size fits all’ EU simply will not work.
This is the paradox of Brexit. Whilst at present it is fashionable for Brussels and much of the London-elite to lambast Britons for the ‘heresy’ of wanting to leave the one Universal Union many of the issues implicit in Brexit matter to all Europeans. Who governs us? What is the relationship between voting and power? Who spends our money? Who controls who lives in our countries? Nor should Britons fall into the trap of seeing Brexit as a kind pan-European exercise in Brit-bashing. As I find living here in The Netherlands there is a lot of goodwill towards Britain, if not a little bemusement at present. Last week in The Times that goodwill was expressed in an outstanding letter from senior Germans to the British people. Put simply, Britain matters and very few apart from the likes of Martin Selmayr in the Commission are seeking to humiliate Britain. Yes, Britain could still matter outside of the EU, but Britain is likely to matter far less if the kind of deal on offer is ever accepted simply to get the Government and Parliament out of a mainly self-made political mess.
None of this is easy for me to say, but I feel it my duty as a patriotic Briton to say it. The here and now strategic reality of Britain and Brexit must here and now be confronted. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is right; Britain can either be in the EU or out of it, but it cannot be in and out of it at the same time. Therefore, as a strategic analyst that a few out there respect let me state for the record that after much thought and analysis my conclusion is given what and who Britain is, given where Brexit is at, the world into which Britain and the rest of Europe are heading and, above all, given the appalling ‘choice’ Britons are now faced with between Hotel California, Stalag Luft 3 and ‘stay’, pay but no say then surely it is better for Britain to remain within the EU. A Britain that engages the federalist fundamentalists and is again a leader on the big questions all Europeans must address together.
There is, of course, an enormous ‘if’ in my core assumption of which I am acutely conscious. The same failed British Establishment, leaders and officials alike, who for too long have been too supine in their dealings with Brussels, would need finally to grow a backbone if Britain were to play the role I envisage in Europe. They will only do that if properly led and I still live in hope that amongst the mediocrities who cram the green benches of the House of Commons somewhere, somehow there is someone I would be proud to call ‘leader’.
The hard truth we must all face is that Britain crossed a Rubicon last week with the crushing defeat of May and much though I do not like it the danger to Britain posed by whatever ‘deal’ Parliament finally passes is greater than simply staying in the EU and building a new alliance to change it.