Europe needs a deal too, and can’t un­der­stand UK’s frenzy on Brexit

The Asian Age - - Oped - Thomas Kielinger By ar­range­ment with the Spec­ta­tor

What can the EU do to help the Bri­tons out of their Brexit quag­mire? Un­til very re­cently, the answer would have been “lit­tle, if any­thing”. There is a deal on the ta­ble, which Theresa May her­self pro­nounced to be non- ne­go­tiable. Well, Par­lia­ment di­rected her — and by im­pli­ca­tion, the EU — to think again and to re­con­sider the vexed question of the Irish back­stop. Does any­body on ei­ther side of the chan­nel re­ally want to wreck the fu­ture re­la­tion­ship be­tween the UK and the EU over the un­solved is­sue of the Irish bor­der, as well as risk cre­at­ing re­newed en­mity along it? God for­bid.

The EU’s re­luc­tance to come for­ward with a com­pro­mise is of course rooted in the in­abil­ity of Eu­ro­peans to un­der­stand the ex­is­ten­tial drive be­hind the Bri­tish wish to leave in the first place. They sim­ply can’t con­ceive of their Bri­tish part­ner, so beloved across a hugely An­glophile con­ti­nent, want­ing to ditch its cosy al­liance for the pur­pose of go­ing it alone again in the world.

Every­body was some­how goaded into think­ing that the term EU makes for a joint iden­tity, eras­ing in­trin­sic dif­fer­ences of na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics. Wrong. There re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant gulf be­tween the sceptered isle and the con­ti­nen­tal ap­proach to his­tory. A sea­far­ing na­tion and con­ti­nen­tals sing from quite dif­fer­ent hymn sheets.

On the eve of Trafal­gar Lord Nel­son told his cap­tains, “Some­thing has to be left to chance. Noth­ing is cer­tain in a sea fight.” The English, wrote Or­well, are “in­vet­er­ate gam­blers.” It boils down to the same thing. On the high seas you have to trust to for­tune as well as to your skills and your con­fi­dence in this blessed plot. The Bri­tish char­ac­ter emerged from a com­bi­na­tion of guts and risk- tak­ing, with sovereignty and a “free hand” as the ul­ti­mate as­pi­ra­tion.

As a re­sult, the coun­try has never sub­scribed to a supra­na­tional body with rights to ad­ju­di­cate in its own af­fairs. At least not ad in­fini­tum. Forty- five years of be­long­ing to the Euro­pean com­mu­nity has just about ex­hausted the Bri­tish will­ing­ness to go along with an out­fit which re­mained alien to its na­tional psy­che.

You may think I’m speak­ing like an un­re­con­structed Brex­iter. Far from it. While I un­der­stand the forces of Bri­tish his­tory, hav­ing stud­ied them over long years, I fear that Brexit may be a “in­vet­er­ate gam­ble” too far — and doubt whether the EU, led by France and Ger­many, can ex­tri­cate the Brits from their quick­sand.

While Europe has been slow to recog­nise the in­nate forces of Brexit, there is a grow­ing aware­ness that the is­sue tran­scends the abil­ity of any­body from the out­side to help, no mat­ter how much good­will they might have. We are wit­ness­ing in Bri­tain some­thing akin to a re­li­gious war, with two Books of Un­com­mon Prayer vy­ing for pre­pon­der­ance.

What the Euro­pean pub­lic thinks of it all is not too dif­fi­cult to divine. I take my cue from Kaiser Wil­helm’s un­for­tu­nate in­ter­view with the Daily Tele­graph in Oc­to­ber 1908, when the Kaiser, be­ing Queen Vic­to­ria’s grand­son, wanted to cosy up to the English by ex­plain­ing how much he ap­pre­ci­ated their virtues and achieve­ments. Ex­cept in one re­spect, where he with­drew his hon­eyed tune: “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares. What has come over you that you are so com­pletely given over to sus­pi­cions quite un­wor­thy of a great na­tion?”

Swap “sus­pi­cions about Brus­sels to­day” for “sus­pi­cions ( about Ger­many in 1908)”, and you get Europe’s re­ac­tion to Bri­tain want­ing to leave the “vas­salage” of the EU: “Mad, mad, mad as March hares.” To the Ger­man mind, for one, it is unimag­in­able to leave a treaty which helped re- in­cor­po­rate the coun­try into the em­brace of Europe’s na­tions, nine of which are our im­me­di­ate neigh­bours. Cavil we may, but never leave.

What about the eco­nomic de­sire to in­ter­vene in the present co­nun­drum of the “March hares”? As a Ger­man car maker I would surely want to bear down heav­ily on my govern­ment — Bri­tons bought 768,896 Ger­man cars in 2017 — to help avoid the mad­ness of a no- deal Brexit, if Brexit it­self can­not be un­done al­to­gether.

But then this ar­gu­ment is be­ing made loud and clear by Bri­tish bosses and heads of for­eign com­pa­nies in the UK, who warn about the calamity of Brexit, cliffedge or oth­er­wise. No­tions of the blessed plot hold scant at­trac­tion to any­body wor­ry­ing about sup­ply lines and just- in- time de­liv­ery of parts needed by their com­pany.

As a soft power Bri­tain will tri­umph ir­re­spec­tive of Brexit — ideas and the English lan­guage will con­tinue to en­joy fric­tion­less traf­fic, as long as you don’t throw span­ners in the works of uni­ver­si­ties and busi­ness cen­tres that at­tract the global tal­ent mar­ket.

So where do we go from here? Cov­er­ing Brexit I have, for a long time, tried to make sense of this is­land: “an opt- out to the con­ti­nent”, as I de­scribe it to my­self. Now, I feel his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis will no longer do. Like most ob­servers, I am aghast at the po­lit­i­cal class be­ing un­able for so long to come to­gether on “com­mon ground” as the Queen put it re­cently. Ob­vi­ously that’s eas­ier said than done, when nei­ther side will cede an inch of their re­spec­tive creeds. But what about the “big­ger pic­ture” — the na­tional in­ter­est? That, too, eludes the con­tes­tants, as they are both teth­ered to a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what the na­tional in­ter­est is.

The short answer is: make good on the de­ci­sion of June 2016, as Theresa May never tires of say­ing, while wav­ing her magic wand. But it isn’t work­ing. ( Per­haps she should look for a bet­ter tool in Harry Potter’s Di­agon Al­ley…) Rather you have to ask your­selves who is the real ar­biter in this in­tractable log jam of the po­lit­i­cal will.

I used to think a sec­ond “people’s vote” was the only log­i­cal so­lu­tion. You tossed this question in the lap of the people in 2016; you would have to do it again three years later. Politi­cians would have only them­selves to blame that it had come to this im­passe.

Now, I’m not so sure. If the Irish back­stop is in­deed the only ob­sta­cle to a with­drawal agree­ment a Eureka mo­ment might just be wait­ing around the cor­ner. In Brus­sels, when a deal has to be fi­nalised by a de­creed date, they are used even to stop­ping the clock to make it hap­pen. Hence my pre­dic­tion: both sides will blink, as both sides can only ben­e­fit from a back­stop so­lu­tion un­lock­ing at last the gate to the fu­ture, how­ever trou­bled. “Noth­ing is cer­tain in a seafight”, but the proof of Brexit lies in the leav­ing.

The EU’s re­luc­tance to come for­ward with a com­pro­mise is of course rooted in the in­abil­ity of Eu­ro­peans to un­der­stand the ex­is­ten­tial drive be­hind the Bri­tish wish to leave in the first place

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