Res Publica Simon Carr
We’ve been bad unionists. As we leave, the European project expands
Obviously, our negotiators and negotiating partners are going to behave in a sensible, fair-minded way. Or so we think because we think, because we are sensible, fair-minded citizens.
Ultimately, reason will prevail. The grown-ups will make sure we come to a mutually profitable agreement. None of us will cut off our nose to spite our face. German car manufacturers won’t allow themselves to be denied our large, profitable market. Economics will inevitably prevail over politics.
But, then again, the precedents point the other way.
After Napoleon conquered Europe, he instituted the Continental System – forbidding his allies and dependants from trading with Britain. After he had ruined us economically, he reasoned, he could invade, conquer, become Prime Minister and possibly King.
Both Europhiles and sceptics may see in this something of our current relations with the European Union. Back in the day, when Russia interrupted his strategy by trading with Britain, Napoleon decided she had to be taught a lesson. She had disobeyed the Emperor; she had defied France; she had to be punished. Napoleon marched on Moscow. The only reason he got any of his troops back alive was because the Russians let them get away to fight the British (whom they hated more than they hated the French).
Politics is invariably more important than economics when it comes to war (politics by another means). The Second World War bankrupted Britain, but we fought it, in spite of seductive offers from Hitler. We fought in Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries for political more than economic reasons – and here we are again, at the beginning of the twentyfirst, engaged in another existential European struggle.
As a bit of a Leaver myself, and one who loves the Continent, I do have to admit we have been rotten unionists. We begged for years to get in; once in, we constantly complained, and finally tried to wreck the union by pulling out at a crucial moment of European instability. You can forgive – or at least understand – Michel Barnier, the Commission, the Parliament and the twenty-seven states for wanting to punish us. Even at terrible cost to themselves, to us, to world trade.
Then again, their side hasn’t entirely distinguished itself, either. It’s clear now that everything the sceptics warned about, and were mocked for warning about, was in the pipeline. The federal superstate is now emerging by the Commission’s command from out the azure main. The euro is becoming compulsory for new members. The proposal for an EU army is in the open. No one is making denials any more along the old lines – ‘It’s just a tidying-up exercise’; ‘It’s a document with no more legal significance than the Beano’. Nick Clegg said people were creating ‘a dangerous fantasy’ when they talked about a European army; in fact, they were pointing out what was planned.
The Commission is getting on with it, fulfilling the original blueprint laid out by Jean Monnet all those years ago. His brilliant conspiracy, executed with dazzling French flair, has brought about the greatest political achievement of its century. And now, at its moment of greatest danger, they are to follow General Foch’s heroic (and, let us not forget, successful) dictum: ‘My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat, situation excellent. I attack.’
They know better than we do that speed is essential to their project. Greek debt is worse than ever, youth unemployment across the south is a crime against economics, Italian banks are kept solvent by some trick that would amaze Derren Brown, and both Turkey and Russia are pawing the ground like fighting bulls looking for a toreador.
It’s going to take valour, vision and genius to save this union.
But however bad medium-term prospects are, some things are better than they were. The populist wave seems to have lost energy. Young, borderless enthusiasts are starting to vote. The Remain movement is vocal and visible. It’s not that Brexit won’t happen; it’s that the most punitive terms will be popular among large sections of the polity.
Preserving a union is the most powerful impulse behind any ruling power. It is their raison d’être. They have no higher value.
Britain might be prepared to walk away without a deal, inflicting, as we think, a great blow on the Commission. But this is imperial, ancien régime politics: beneficial outcomes are not the driving motivations. The ‘glorious success’ of a Boris Brexit is the only thing that will inflict a blow on the Commission – and glorious success is the single thing they will be taking steps to prevent.