7 January 2017

The real Brexit tragedy is what it will do to the EU


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The headlines this week have been hogged by Ivan the Terrible – Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s top diplomat in Brussels, who abandoned his post several months early on the grounds that Theresa May’s government didn’t have a proper plan for Brexit and he couldn’t be bothered to hang around while it tried to come up with one.

For Brexiteers, Rogers was terrible because he embodied the Foreign Office’s reflexive Europhile cringe – in fact, they said, it was his Eeyore-ish advice that persuaded David Cameron to limit his ambitions for EU renegotiation (with fateful consequences).

For Remainers, of course, it was Rogers’s departure that was terrible, because it showed how ill-prepared we are for Brexit – and how thoroughly we will be outmanoeuvred by our former partners once the talks begin.

Tales were told of Sir Ivan, formerly one of the most influential men in Brussels, standing forlornly on the sidelines as business carried on without him. Britain may still be in the EU. But now we’re going, no one cares what we – or our diplomats – think.

This is indeed a powerful image. But not for the reasons most people imagine.

As Vincenzo Scarpetta wrote for CapX this week, Rogers’s departure is a blow to Britain’s negotiations, but not a major one. Not only was he going anyway in November, but he wasn’t actually in charge of the talks.

And there’s another point that fewer people have made – which is that whoever represents Britain in Brussels, we’re still not going to get a great deal. Basic political logic dictates that the EU27 cannot give Britain everything it wants: they have to make sure we are left worse off, or seen to be so, in order to stop everyone else getting the same idea.

Yes, we have some leverage – but only enough to ensure that a deal isn’t too punitive, rather than to somehow persuade the Europeans to give us restrictions on free movement and full access to the single market and a cherry on top as well.

There’s also the legal dynamic. The Article 50 deal can be approved by a majority of EU leaders under qualified majority voting, although it will also need the consent of the European Parliament.

But as the experts at The UK in a Changing Europe have pointed out, the free trade arrangements that will accompany our exit are a different beast.

In a little-noticed court case just before Christmas, the adviser to the European Court of Justice said that the EU’s trade deal with Singapore qualified as a “mixed agreement” – meaning that it had to be approved not just by the EU institutions but by every single member state, including sub-national parliaments such as the Walloons in Belgium (who kicked up such a fuss over the Canadian deal).

The same will, if that ruling holds (and it almost certainly will), apply to the UK deal too.

In other words, Britain can get its divorce easily enough. But the subsequent settlement – the diplomatic equivalent of splitting up the properties and savings, arranging child support, sorting out custody and visitation rights – can be held hostage by every last Cypriot and Slovak with a grudge.

This is why the smart money is on a transitional deal while the nuts and bolts of that larger agreement are exhaustively (and exhaustingly) thrashed out.

Which is also why, for the more realistic Brexiteers, leaving the EU has never been about getting a better deal with Europe per se. It’s been about what leaving the EU will enable us to do within our own country – and how it will enable us to engage with the rest of the world.

Yes, they hope to get as good a deal as possible. But the deal’s not the point: the freedom it brings is.

Which brings us back to that image of Sir Ivan standing alone. Because it’s a reminder not of Britain’s future without Europe, but Europe’s future without Britain.

There was much scorn poured, during the EU referendum campaign, on those who argued that Britain should stay in the EU for Europe’s sake. And understandably so: the vote was, and had to be, about what was best for Britain itself.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a stupid argument.

The fact is that in recent years, pretty much all the best things about the EU (or, for the Bill Cash contingent, all the least worst things) have been the result of British influence.

We fought – though not very hard – to dilute the most pernicious effects of the Common Agricultural Policy. We pushed for the expansion to take in Eastern Europe, arguing for an EU that was wider rather than deeper. We made the case for liberal economics, supply-side reform, free-market competition and an end to state aid. We called for a tough response to Vladimir Putin’s depredations.

We were, of course, fighting against the tide. Yet we accomplished more than perhaps we realise. In countries like France, the European Commission has long been lambasted not for being too federalist, but too Anglo-Saxon.

For our ideological allies like Holland, Denmark, Ireland and Poland, and even for Germany, as well as for reformist officials within the Commission, Britain was seen (outbursts of griping and table-thumping apart) as a force for good in Brussels.

Without us, the EU will lose the Jiminy Cricket on its shoulder, the big country most willing not just to grumble quietly about the latest regulatory fandangle or integrationist boondoggle, but to stick a wrench in the gears.

It will be a union that’s more Mediterranean and less Anglo-Saxon – and, as a result, even less able to respond to the economic challenges of the century to come.

So yes, that image of Sir Ivan standing alone on the sidelines of Brussels summit meetings, silent and morose, says much about Britain’s current isolation in Europe. But it says even more about the kind of Europe that will be left once we’re gone.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX.