She could well become the fourth PM to be killed off by Europeby Jay Elwes / October 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Theresa May’s Conservatives are 17 points ahead of Labour in the polls. The Opposition is crushed and in disarray. May dominates British politics. And yet she is heading for a political fight that she cannot win. The Government’s opposition is no longer domestic, but international—it is the EU. Her tenure as prime minister will be dominated by Europe. There will be nothing else. Her schools policies were ridiculed and have now all but vanished from view. This will be the fate of all other policies so long as the European question persists. Europe will overshadow everything. And when the time comes for direct confrontation, she will lose.
The European Union will give us nothing. This is more than clear to anyone who choses to breathe deeply and examine the facts. The hyped-up Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party have never looked happier, men in their fifties, sixties and seventies, who declare that Britain’s departure from the EU will be “glorious.” But their extreme sensitivity to even the gentlest criticism of Brexit is not suggestive of confidence. They know the extent of the gamble that they have encouraged the British people to take—we all know it—and the signs are deeply troubling. Since the Brexit vote, the value of the pound has dropped by 14 per cent, to a 31-year-low against the dollar. Though this helps British exporters, it also stands as a verdict on the attractiveness of the British economy overall. Now, it appears, the British economy has simply become less attractive.
No. 10’s official line is that there will be “no running commentary,” on Britain’s talks with the EU. Speak to government officials and listen to MPs in the Commons and it becomes clear why. Nothing has happened. No one will talk to us. There is nothing on which to give any running commentary. As Michael Heseltine recently told Prospect, “What is Brexit? No-one has any idea where that is going to end up.” The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, the former EU financial regulator Michel Barnier, has made it clear that he has had no meetings with any British counterparts, and will not do so until the government triggers Article 50. This is supposed to happen next spring—though May will come up against fierce opposition here, as pressure for a parliamentary vote on the timing of Article 50, as well as on the terms of Brexit, will continue to mount.
Before the referendum, David Davis, now Secretary of State for Leaving the EU, said in a speech earlier this year that, “Within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEOs of Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi will be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market.” This has not happened. No nation, either within or outside the EU, has offered Britain a post-Brexit trade deal. If they had, imagine the fanfare.
This “all over by Christmas” view of Brexit negotiations is further undermined by historic precedent. Greenland, a country of 56,000 people, voted to leave the EU in 1982. Negotiations took until 1985. (Lars Vesterbirk, Greenland’s former representative to the EU told the Politico website that: “The negotiations were a surprisingly unpleasant job.”) Canada has also negotiated a trade deal with the EU. Talks over the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement began in 2009. Seven years later, that agreement has still not come into force.
Britain floats in a kind of geopolitical stasis. And when Article 50 is triggered and the talks begin, Britain will find itself negotiating with an economic giant. In 2015, the UK’s GDP was $2.8 trillion. The EU’s GDP that year was $16.2 trillion. About 44 per cent of UK exports go to the EU. Around 16 per cent of the EU’s exports go to Britain. The EU is bigger than Britain and when it comes to exports, we rely on them more than they rely on us. Throughout the referendum campaign, efforts were made to dodge that brute fact, for example by citing the “Rotterdam Effect,” where UK exports go via ports in the EU before being shipped to other global markets. This suggested that the 44 per cent figure is artificially high and that Britain is significantly less reliant on the EU. The Office for National Statistics has investigated this theory and found it without merit.
The pro-Brexit response is that, as Germany exports so many cars to Britain, Angela Merkel would never allow the EU to negotiate tougher trade relations with the UK, as it would be against Germany’s economic interests. This overlooks two points. First, the Brexit vote itself shows clearly that a country can be more than willing to act against its own economic interests. Second, Angela Merkel had no qualms about falling into line with sanctions against Russia, even though these were highly damaging to, among other things, Germany’s pharmaceuticals sector. The number of cars Britain buys from Germany is important—but it is unlikely that Merkel will see it as more important than the European project.
In a recent speech, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, showed that, although Downing Street may not want to provide a running commentary on Brexit, he would happily do so. “Our task will be to protect the interests of the EU as a whole,” he said. It would also be “to stick unconditionally to the Treaty rules and fundamental values. By this I mean, inter alia, the conditions for access to the single market with all four freedoms. There will be no compromise in this regard.” Translation—if Britain wants to limit immigration from the EU, then it gets no preferential economic treatment from the EU.
Theresa May is heading for disaster. Either she will bring economic collapse by shutting Britain off from the EU economy on which Britain relies, or she will go soft on Europe and be torn down by the Eurosceptic ideologues of her own party. Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron were all destroyed by Europe. Unless the Prime Minister changes course, she will be no different.