Xavier Bettel has given us a wounding description of Brexit. As an EU member, the Luxembourg prime minister observed, Britain was forever asking for opt-outs. “Now they are out, and want a load of opt-ins.”
There you have it. Mr Bettel captures precisely the abiding sense of superiority that persuades Britain it can stand above the rest of Europe alongside its recurring fear of being left behind.
Boris Johnson speaks of Brexit as a “liberation”. The foreign secretary is among those English nationalists who never step out of the nostalgic haze of victory in the second world war. Others were subjugated; Britain stood alone. Yet there Mr Johnson was in Brussels this week tipping his hat to the “defeated” in the hope of enlisting their support against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Technically, Britain is not yet “out” of the EU, but the conclusion of a draft transition agreement with the remaining 27 members would take Theresa May’s government a stride closer to the exit. The prime minister is determined to walk through it in March 2019. Just to be sure, she has a fail-safe approach: to take just about any deal she is offered.
The story of the first phase of Article 50 negotiations was a procession of capitulations. British demands collided with European realities and Mrs May retreated at every turn. The second phase will be much the same except that, as the clock ticks faster, she will be even quicker to abandon her positions.
Only this month the prime minister set out at great length the opt-ins, concessions and exemptions she required of the EU27 in the post-Brexit world. Never mind. These “cake-and-eat” demands — segmenting the single market, privileged access for the City of London and bespoke customs arrangements — were made in the sure knowledge they will soon enough have to be abandoned.
Michel Barnier, the head of the commission’s negotiating team, has quite sensibly rested his position on the logic of Mrs May’s rejection of the single market and customs union and her refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That leaves the only plausible trade arrangement as one akin to those enjoyed by Canada and South Korea. If Britain is willing to pay, it may also secure associate membership of a handful of EU agencies.
By the government’s own lights, this outcome falls far short of the national interest. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has demanded an accord covering financial services. Mrs May has other priorities. Politics must trump economics, and the interests of the Conservative party those of the nation. Supply chains, investment and jobs cannot be allowed to get in the way of her efforts to avoid a Tory rupture.
The timetable has room for only six months more of talks. Everything has to be wrapped up by November to allow time for ratification. The best that can be achieved in such a short period is a statement of a set of broad principles to shape the future relationship. Hammering out a workable economic arrangement will be left for the transition, which in turn will need to be extended.
For Mrs May, the vaguer the autumn accord the better. A fuzzy statement of intent will be sold as all things to all sides — to her party’s nationalists as a clean break with the wicked EU, and to pro-European Tories as the precursor to a close and strong relationship. Anything too specific and Mrs May would risk stirring rebellion in parliament.
Things could still go wrong. MPs could vote to stay in a customs union. The government’s reckless indifference to the impact of Brexit on the Northern Ireland peace settlement faces exposure. A draft agreement with the EU27 includes a commitment to avoid a hard border between the North and the Irish Republic. Mrs May has yet to say how this can be reconciled with a departure from the single market and customs union.
For hardline Brexiters, none of this matters. Mr Johnson dismisses the Irish border as akin to the boundary between two London boroughs. The likes of Mr Johnson hold the Brexit prize too important to be held hostage to peace and prosperity across the Irish Sea. They have their sights set on the supposed restoration of national sovereignty.
There is a snag. More, really, than a snag. The repatriation of sovereignty is in large measure a chimera. As Mr Putin has reminded us, Britain cannot banish the facts of interdependence. In any event, in order to reclaim this claimed sovereignty, the Brexiters must suppress the will of, well, the parliament they promise to empower. Most MPs, including those on the Tory side, think Brexit will be bad for Britain. So, incidentally, do a majority of cabinet ministers. At the very least they want to soften the blow. But they are told by the prime minister they must vote for the good of party before country.
Perhaps there is a precedent. I cannot recall it. When last did Britain’s elected representatives take a decision that they fully expected would make the nation poorer, less influential and less secure? The cynicism takes one’s breath away.
There is an answer. A prime minister of principle would offer a free vote. Parliament should be charged with mapping the contours of Britain’s future relationship with its own continent. MPs should also be empowered to put the terms to the people in a second referendum. That really would be taking back control. Strange that the self-appointed champions of parliamentary sovereignty argue otherwise.