Are Eurocrats, I wonder, starting to feel the tiniest batsqueak of doubt? A year ago, they had the UK where they wanted it. Our officials were promising to adopt EU social and employment laws unilaterally and to pay for the privilege. Had any other country made such an offer, Eurocrats would have snapped its hand off like ravening hounds. But, still bruised and affronted by the referendum result, they instead demanded more. Result? A change of management in Britain, and the sweeping away of various concessions that the previous administration had placed on the table.
Theresa May had approached the talks as a supplicant. The EU laid down the terms, set the preconditions and ordered the protocols. Every meeting took place at the European Commission rather than in London: a token attempt to hold one press conference on British soil at the Brussels embassy was rejected out of hand. Desperate to come back with something – anything – that could technically be labelled “Brexit”, the former PM signed up to every request placed before her. She accepted the EU’s sequencing, announcing that Britain would settle the EU’s demands before it began to discuss trade. She agreed to pay a £39 billion bill that no international tribunal would uphold. She accepted – no, she actively requested – a two-year period where Britain would be subject to every dot and comma of EU law, including new rules passed during that time, with no vote and no veto.
These acts of homage and fealty were packaged together and offered to the EU at the Salzburg summit last September. Never has a sovereign country prostrated itself in such an undignified manner. Here was Britain asking the EU to set its technical standards, promising unilaterally to contribute to the military security of the continent, swearing never to be more competitive than its neighbours. Yanis Varoufakis, the raffish former Greek finance minister, called it “a deal that a nation signs only after having been defeated at war,” though it reminded me more of the ultimatum issued by Austria-Hungary to Serbia in 1914 – a deliberately provocative demand to control the internal affairs of another state.
Yet, incredibly, EU leaders held out for even more. Two years of dealing with Theresa May had convinced them that she would talk tough but then grovel. And so it proved. A few days after the summit, the Prime Minister wrote: “Let me be clear. Our Brexit deal is not some long wish-list from which negotiators get to pick and choose. It is a complete plan with a set of outcomes that are non-negotiable”. But it was not long before she made yet more concessions, offering to stay in the EU’s customs union and, in the end, even suggesting a second referendum.
The flaw all the way through was that her officials were (as one of them privately admitted to me in 2017) unwilling to walk away from the table. You don’t need to be an expert in diplomacy to understand how the other side will respond to such a negotiating stance. Taking no deal off the table meant, in practical terms, taking Brexit off the table.
Suppose that, in 1776, the American patriot leaders had said, “OK, we’re leaving, but we mustn’t leave without a deal. We will become independent only on terms agreed by George III”. How do you suppose that that dim and affable monarch would have responded? Would he have suggested mutually beneficial divorce terms? Of course not. He would have done precisely as the EU has been doing, making deliberately harsh and unreasonable demands in the hope that the colonists might drop the whole idea of independence.
Sure enough, the EU pushed and pushed and, shamefully, Britain conceded and conceded. By the end, we were reduced to taking our stand on just one face-saving point. We would accept the financial penalties, the period of non-voting membership, the one-sided acceptance of EU rules, even the principle of the backstop – provided it was not permanent. Parliament, unlike the PM, had a bottom line. It was not willing to swap an arrangement that had an exit mechanism (EU membership) for one that did not (the backstop).
It should have been game set and match to Brussels. Here was the fifth largest economy in the world, the second largest in Europe, offering to become a captive market for EU exporters, retaining the various barriers that keep out more efficient global rivals. Here was the country that had twice helped to liberate the continent volunteering for semi-colonial status. All the EU had to do was to offer a standard break clause of the kind contained in almost every international treaty. But that would, for at least some Eurocrats, have undone the whole point of the withdrawal agreement, namely that it had to be seen to be punitive. So they dug in, precipitating the downfall of Theresa May and her replacement by a ministry that is serious about walking away.
You might protest that, during the referendum campaign, everyone assumed that there would be an agreed, managed withdrawal. I certainly did: I argued before, during and after the campaign for a Swiss-type deal, where we would retain most of our links to the single market while pulling out of the EU’s political structures. But it is now clear that Brussels is not interested in talking terms. It would rather risk a juddering rupture, even when the economy of the eurozone is delicate, than watch Britain succeed on its own.
We can respond to such an attitude as Theresa May did, by whining and pleading with Brussels to be more reasonable. Or we can react as Boris Johnson is doing, by preparing to pivot to the Anglosphere while remaining open to a compromise from the EU side.
There will be a deal sooner or later. How can there not be when the UK is the EU’s single biggest export destination? The only question is whether it is agreed before 31 October, or whether we must negotiate it from the outside.
I have never wanted a no-deal outcome. It took a freakish combination of Brussels intransigence, Theresa May’s hopelessness and the loss of a parliamentary majority to bring us to this point. But at least, following such a break, it will be clear that neither side has any intention of installing infrastructure at the Irish border, and that that whole issue was a cover for the attempt to keep us in the customs union. We can then negotiate on honest terms. In the meantime, we would have keep our dignity and our democracy intact.
After a decade-long break, I am again writing regularly in the Sunday Telegraph. That column, along with all my videos, blogs, speeches and articles, appears on my website: www.hannan.co.uk