It’s bad enough coming back from a lovely holiday in France, without the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg alighting from the first class compartment of the Brussels Eurostar to make the return to England even more galling. What supreme irony, I thought, as we watched the prominent Eurosceptic and a group of others – presumably members of the cross-party Brexit committee – step off the train.
If some of these men have their way, such Eurostar trips will be considerably more difficult, thanks to a permanently fractured relationship between our little island and a vast continent of promise, culture and exploration. Plans are already in train for reinforced border controls at Paris’s Gare du Nord following Brexit, something expected to lead to increased queues and extra security checks for British passengers.
No easy European trips by train for the likes of us, no cheap Interrail tickets for the whole family, giving us the chance to explore Paris, Marseille and the Gulf of Saint Tropez for less than the cost of a week in Scarborough.
It’s said that travel broadens the mind, but it also puts events at home into sharp perspective. As we enjoyed the experience of unfettered travel around France on fast and reliable public transport, Brexit itself turned into a remote concept. Irrelevant really, until we caught sight of newspaper headlines. It may come as a surprise to some – or perhaps we ate at the wrong cafes – but we heard no earnest discussions at dinner over the finer points of the Irish border or farming subsidies.
As I followed the men in suits closely along the platform, listening to their haw-hawing voices, I couldn’t help but feel despondent. Talk about our lives in their hands. We had joined the Eurostar home in Lille, but Rees-Mogg had been in Brussels for a meeting with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. Earlier that day, whilst we were speeding through the French countryside on the very efficient and on-time TGV, the Conservative MP told reporters that he and Barnier had bonded over their shared assessment that Theresa May’s Chequers plan is “complete rubbish”.
Adding that their mutually preferred way forward should instead be a Canada-style free trade deal, he said: “Interestingly, Eurosceptics and M. Barnier are in greater agreement than Eurosceptics and the Government or M. Barnier and the Government. It is very encouraging.”
Encouraging? I’d call it downright depressing. Barnier is only siding with Rees-Mogg to cover his own back, because he believes that the Chequers proposal would destroy the European project overall. That’s because it would create a free trade area in goods between the EU and UK but also allow the UK to have its own trade policy outside the customs union. Rules for the UK would be made in Westminster and the government would have control over its own immigration policies.
I can’t say I entirely agree with her every decision, but we do have a Prime Minister attempting to do her level best in a very tricky situation. And here in front of me was a man who is doing his utmost to destroy every careful chess move she makes, even to the lengths of going to Brussels to meet the chief negotiator himself and milk his discomfort as much as possible.
Looking around at the sea of people moving along the platform, it struck me that it appears Rees-Mogg and pretty much all of the politicians involved in the whole Brexit mess are not thinking of us – they are thinking of themselves and their own grasp on power.
If I had been travelling alone, I would have caught up with the leading proponent of hard Brexit and told him exactly what I thought of his dubious tactics. But my children had already been embarrassed enough this holiday by their mother and her attempts to speak French. They talked me out of it.
However, I chuntered all the way from St Pancras to Kings Cross to catch the Doncaster train and carried on until at least Peterborough, railing at the injustice of having no control over what is being decided by men in suits at private meetings about my rights as a European citizen.
This is what Brexit looks and sounds like up close and personal. And it isn’t nice. As I eavesdropped on Rees-Mogg and his not-so-merry band, I heard nothing of idealism, of pulling together and trying to create a positive outcome. It was all about backing this person or the other, as if the whole thing was a game to gamble on. If this is the best we can do, with the current cast leading the charge, we should go back to the drawing board and hold another referendum.
And this time, the rules of engagement must be discussed, debated, refined and presented clearly to the population before we decide, not cooked up in the first class carriage of a Eurostar train.