“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together”.
Nostalgia and Utopia
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 June. Some time ago I wrote that there are two places a political leader should never take a country; Nostalgia and Utopia. Next week Brexit negotiations begin between a weakened Theresa May and an apparently triumphalist Brussels. Are their grounds for any hope that an equitable Brexit can be reached and relatively quickly?
Many of my regular readers will know I harbour profound concerns about the EU, particularly the attitude of the Brussels elite to democracy. When I worked for the EU I too often got the sense that they saw themselves as infallible, latter day Habsburgs and Bourbons rolled into one. The European Commission saw itself as a kind of pre-Renaissance Vatican, the guardian of the One True Faith, with its more Europe at all costs beliefs all too often rubber-stamped by its very own Sacred College of Cardinals in the form of the European Parliament.
As an Englishman steeped in England’s long political culture I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that people can have power over my life, even though I never had the chance to vote for them. Had I been around in 1642 I would have most definitely been on the side of Parliament during the English Civil War. For me the ‘divine right’ of any ‘king’ is, and will always be, nonsense, however well-meaning. Brussels has certainly not stopped seeking ever more power for itself in the name of ‘Europe’.
Too often I also found that many of the Brussels elite were instinctively opposed to my country because they saw Britain as a break on their buro-imperialist ambitions. Too often I heard the very people meant to defend London’s position apologising for it in private. Even today I hear some eurocrats speak of Brexit as a kind of Great Purge that once complete will leave the road clear for Brussels to achieve the ‘broad sunlit upland’ of Political Union. Dream on!
And yet I campaigned for Remain. After a long think there were six main reasons. First, I still believe, to loosely quote Burke again, that enough good men and women exist in Europe to prevent the emergence of bureaucratic tyranny. Britain should be ‘in there’ fighting to return the EU to the people and the nation-states in which they still believe, and with which they still identify. Second, I do not believe the European nation-state is intrinsically conflictual and that most modern European states are quite capable of conducting their international affairs peacefully. Third, I have always believed in the need for a European institution, a European Community of States, and always will. Fourth, I foresaw the political mess in Britain today, which the political battle over Brexit has made worse. Fifth, free movement of people, and the three other fundamental freedoms enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, were realised by winning the Cold War, and would exist in some form EU or no. Finally, I looked at the bigger strategic picture. Given the threats to my friends in the Baltic States and across southern Europe I was convinced that on balance this was not the moment for Europe to yet again descend into another bout of self-flagellation.
Brexit has become far too ideological and that must now stop. I am sick and tired of hearing about ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ brexits from those who clearly do not understand how the EU works. I am tired of hearing Remoaners tell me the voice of ‘we’ the 48% who voted to remain must be ‘respected’, when what they really mean is that the voice of the 52% who voted to leave should now be discounted. I am sick and tired of hearing ‘hard’ Brexiteers saying Britain must have nothing more to do with the EU and that Britain can stand alone Lowe-like, whilst too many ‘soft’ Brexiteers seem all too happy to cast Britain into the worst of all EU worlds; subject to the rules, whims and prejudices of Brussels, but being outside of the EU having no influence over it. I am particularly tired of strategically-illiterate comparisons between tiny Norway and Switzerland, and far, far bigger Britain.
The simple truth is that Britain is part of the wider Europe, and the wider Europe desperately needs an engaged Britain. In London politicians of all shades of opinion and persuasion must put their foggy petty-fogging aside and come together to establish a negotiating position that is truly in the British national interest. On the Continent politicians must stop threatening a leading power many sons of which gave their lives for Europe’s freedom.
A Defining Moment
Brexit is a defining moment for both Britain and the EU. That is why on the eve of the Brexit negotiations I am calling for all responsible leaders on both sides of the Channel to come together in the name of the people of Britain and across the rest of Europe. The result of the June 2016 Brexit referendum must be respected for what it was; a democratic, legitimate vote. If Brexit goes the way of 2005 French and Dutch referenda on the Constitutional Treaty, and the 2008 Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and the voice of the people is again ignored by the elite in the name (of course) of ‘the common good’, then the EU will be revealed to be little more than a Bourbonist experiment. If British leaders do not recognise the vital importance of the EU to Britain, and Britain’s vital role in helping to keep Europe safe, stable and secure, then the Little Britain about which I warned in my 2015 book will have become reality.
Like it or no, Britain has always had a special place IN the EU. And, if both sides are to agree an equitable Brexit deal in the interests of all then Britain must be accorded a special relationship WITH the EU. For Britain that will demand pragmatism, supporting the EU budget, and accepting some compromise on sovereignty. Absolute sovereignty is enjoyed by no state. As Thomas Hobbes once pointed out, only anarchy affords such sovereignty, but it is liberty only at the price of security.
If not, if Brexit falls into the chasm between British nostalgists and European utopians then the future for all looks bleak. For once, just for once, can politicians please put the wider interests of the people before narrow sectarianism? Then, the art of negotiation might just paint a new European masterpiece that is more Canaletto than Jackson Pollock.
Brexit: for the sake of Britain and Europe.