DOESN’T time fly? For those of you who are fed up of hearing the word Brexit, salvation is at hand. In 12 months’ time come tomorrow, we shall formally leave the European Union.
As the Prime Minister, Theresa May, tours the UK tomorrow to signal the start of the last lap, I recognise that it will take another 21 months finally to shake Brussels’ dust off our feet.
But that is neither here nor there in the long run any more than are delayed fishing rights and the award of a contract to a Continental firm to produce our restored blue UK passports.
The passport issue demonstrates what I learned time and again during my 24 years in the Civil Service under Labour and Tory government: the sheer insecurity of politicians in their ideology.
I am still sufficiently with it to recognise the symbolic nature of a British-made passport for independent Britons. But you cannot have it both ways. Either you believe in free trade and competition or you don’t.
It is perfectly clear that arch- Brexiteers (and lots of other politicians) believe in it only when it suits their purpose. This brings me to the continuing idiocy of the Tory Parliamentary party and notably Jacob Rees-Mogg’s posturings. After what it did to Margaret Thatcher, no Tory leader should have to put up with its stupid disloyalty ever again.
Yet Theresa May has too often had the book thrown at her, including by her own Cabinet ministers. One of the occasional chuckers, Boris Johnson, may be the sharpest knife in the box, but he is sometimes no more controlled in his ambition than was Michael Heseltine.
In spite of all this, Mrs May is now in the driving seat as talks on our trading relationship with Europe begin. Her integrity of purpose and commitment have confounded her critics. She stands in sharp contrast to the blatant opportunism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his unprincipled crew.
As she embarks on the final formal lap of negotiations, she holds all the cards at the minimal cost of a transition period. Anyone who thought that we would make a clean break next March either knows nothing about the EU or has no political judgment. Given Brussels’ determination to nail us to the wall, pour discourager les autres 27, a transition period was always on the cards. They cannot afford to let us get away with nothing.
But what does this mean? True, we shall be subject to EU policies and obligations without a seat at the table from next March to December 31, 2020. But consider the constraints on the Franco-German axis, Jean-Claude Juncker and his negotiator, Michel Barnier. Either they behave and negotiate in good faith with the objective of reaching an acceptable final agreement or they stand to lose £39bn, not to mention the assurance of a continuing lucrative British market for European goods. Remember, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
From now on, Europe’s negotiators had better be on their best behaviour or else they are going to find themselves facing a financial crisis as well as the current immigration and constitutional problems that confront them.
The ludicrous idea of a United States of Europe by 2030 or whenever – or perhaps even in the 21st century – is principally why the UK has chosen to leave the EU. What is more, the EU is not by any standards a good advertisement for good governance – Tony Blair, John Major, Lord Heseltine, Lord Mandelson and Sir Vince Cable please note.
Again at risk to my credibility as a reader of the tea leaves, I believe the UK will secure an acceptable Brexit.
No deal would be a disaster for the EU. First, it would show its unreasonableness. The worse it behaves the more the British people know they were right in giving notice to leave. By the same token, the EU’s many critics in Germany, France, Italy, Austria and central and Eastern Europe would conclude that they should not continue to belong to an institution with no better idea how to hold itself together than by threats. Remember East Germany and the Berlin Wall.
Such is the febrile state of the great European project – its incompetence, extravagance and corruption – that the only sensible EU course is to face reality: none of the 27 proud member-states (as displayed at international football matches) wants to subjugate its nationality to a federal nonsense.
If the EU had heeded Margaret Thatcher in Bruges in 1988, it would not be in this mess. Will it now contribute to Vladimir Putin’s destabilisation programme or show some common sense?