Sunday, 4 June 2017

More on Hard Brexit - why de Gaulle was right

So, as promised, this is my explanation for why the leaders of the EU have been so ready to accept the UK's Brexit referendum result and so reluctant to offer a soft Brexit.

Let's start from the idea that the leaders of the EU are broadly honest. That's not hard to imagine: Saddam Hussein was broadly honest. They mean what they say. They really believe all that stuff about how the EU is essential for peace in Europe, the civilisation they love. These people do not believe that the biggest danger for Europe is global warming or demographic collapse or economic stagnation or Islamic fundamentalism or what have you. The biggest danger to them is another war between France and Germany. That is what they want to prevent - and prevent it forever. They think the European Project - the plan to move ever-closer to a United States of Europe - is the way to do it.

Let's also take it that the leaders of the EU are not idiots. Of course they are not. They are well-educated people who have succeeded in rising to the top of a continental-scale greasy pole.

I mean three things by saying that they are not idiots. First, they are not idiots for believing that a war between France and Germany is possible and would be disastrous. At the founding of (what is now) the EU, there had been a war between France and Germany every generation (1870, 1914, 1939). And it was founded by the countries for whom such wars are most disastrous, i.e. France, Germany and the Benelux. (Let's leave aside Italy for the moment.)

Second, they are not idiots for thinking that the European Project is a good way to stop such wars. To the English-speaking world, you stop wars by military alliances, balance of power etc etc. But you have to admit that creating a complete co-dependency of the sinews of war - coal and steel - and building integration from there is a more imaginative approach. And let's say it's not a sure thing, let's say it just has a 10% chance of success: well, given the downsides of failure, you'd take that 10% chance of success.

Third, they are not idiots now. They have spotted that the European Project has great difficulties in winning referenda. They know that the acquiescence of the peoples of Europe is the best that the Project can hope for. But look at it from their point of view: it's no wonder that the Project is unpopular - the peoples of Europe are the sort of idiots who insist on having catastrophic wars every generation. They need to be stopped, not encouraged.

(Sidenote: maybe it is not quite the avoidance of war between France and Germany that they fear. But you have to think of it as something every bit as big and important as that. Forget words like 'club' and 'trading partners': think of 'unshakeable bond' and 'civilisation'. Get in that mindset and it makes sense.)

Let's pause for a moment and turn our attention to the UK. What morals did we draw from the events leading up to the 1950s? Quite different conclusions, I would suggest, from those that the leaders of the EU drew. Here's the British view.

From time to time, going back way before 1870, there are wars in Europe. Stuff happens, as Rumsfeld put it. Sometimes the French start it, sometimes the Germans, and by the 1950s it looked as if the Russians might be the problem. It's a real shame and we should try to stop it happening if we can. The best way to do that is to have a balance in power in Europe: that kept the peace for a couple of generations after Napoleon. Peace for a couple of generations is a pretty good outcome.

But more important than all that is how to end up ok if and when these wars break out. We've been pretty good at that and see no need to change our policy. The policy is to get the continentals to fight each other while we sit on our islands and eat food that comes to us across the Atlantic, and then when they have tired each other out then we swoop in and finish off the job. (That's not quite how WWI worked out, which is why it is regarded as such a tragedy in this country: cf WWII and the Napoleonic Wars.)

So the most important thing is to be the United States' best friend in the world. The UK will do whatever it takes to maintain that friendship. It is, perhaps, a matter of life and death: we must do them all the favours we can, because one day we might have to call them in.

(This is not stupid either. We got the US to sign up to the plan.)

It's an unemotional plan, but frankly all's fair in love and war. We had been on the same side as the Russians in two world wars and against Napoleon, but that changed at the end of WWII. These things change. Only the balance of power makes sense.

Oh, and one more thing: there's nothing wrong with democracy. The British people proved to be sensible and dependable as the franchise was gradually widened, oblivious to the siren calls of fascism and communism, and there was no reason to think that they would lose their heads in the future. With careful guidance from their betters, they can be broadly trusted to do the right thing. They certainly had no intention of starting any wars on the Continent.

If we start from here then everything makes more sense. So, for example, it is obvious to the English-speaking world that the euro was a bad idea in the first place and that splitting it up might be a good thing for, at the very least, the people of Greece. It is obvious that democracy is a better way to run countries than ignoring people in favour of an elite project. But neither of those is at all obvious to the leaders of the EU. When Mario Draghi said that the ECB would do "whatever it takes" to save the euro, he was stating the obvious. Of course the ECB would do whatever it takes to avoid a war between France and Germany and the consequential collapse of European civilisation.

Equally, no doubt foreign writers can spend time pointing out that the UK pays a price for being best friend to the USA. No doubt you can make a case that it would be better off throwing its lot in with the EU in an attempt to create a rival power in the world. But that idea is unthinkable to the UK leadership, just as the idea of deciding to dissolve the EU and replace it with something looser just because everyone would prefer that is unthinkable to the leadership of the EU.

So that's our starting point. What happens when you try to put the UK into the EU? Let's look at it from the point of view of the leaders of the EU. They faced 4 questions. We'll go through it with them.

First question: should the UK be allowed in? Bear in mind that the UK matters. It's big enough and rich enough that it can't be ignored. If it is in, and not helping, then it will be a real hindrance to the Project. De Gaulle spotted, correctly, that it did not buy into the Project. So he said Non.

Heath managed to get a different answer from the EU. But he didn't quite persuade the UK to buy into the Project. The British people thought they were buying a Common Market. They thought it was all about the price of milk. But the leadership of the UK seemed committed to the Project.

Anyway, on to the second question: how do you deal with the UK once it is in?

This is a tricky question. Delicately, is the short answer. It has to be dragged slowly, by opt-outs and exceptions, along the path that you are taking everyone else. You've done pretty well. You've got the Project far enough down the track to have a single currency, a flag, a passport design, a national anthem, a legal system, a border round the outside but not on the inside and so on. It's looking good. But the UK is spoiling it. It's not joining in properly. It wants to re-negotiate. Hmm.

Third question: do we offer the UK special terms? Other things being equal, we want the UK in the EU. But only if it buys in to the Project. So, no special terms - it's put up or shut up time. Either the UK is going to buy in properly - or we don't want it at all.

Let's pause for a moment here to recall the stakes here. The EU is not about stars being arranged in the shape of a heart, or about being nice to people - that's just meme-stuff for Facebook. Nor is it about mutual gains from trade or university research funding or bendy bananas or state aid rules or what have you - those are just the means to the end. The EU is a serious geopolitical project to stick together various peoples who would otherwise be going to war. It's a big deal.

So, we say no to any special terms. Then the British put up rather than shut up. And that takes us to our fourth question.

What is the fourth question? It's not "what is the best economic outcome for the peoples of Europe as a whole?" or "what do the peoples or Europe want?". (That was not the way to answer any of questions 1-3, was it?) Those questions might have led to a soft Brexit. But if you were asking those questions you would never have ended up with the euro and all the rest of it in the first place.

No, the fourth question, the question the EU leaders were asking, is this: what response to the Brexit referendum is best for the Project? And that is a very very easy question to answer: the hardest and toughest Brexit ever.

A hard Brexit means (a) getting rid of the biggest internal impediment to the Project, i.e. the UK (and all its opt-outs and caveats) while at the same time (b) showing any other country with centrifugal tendencies that There Is No Alternative to the Project. Soft Brexit would completely undermine everything that the EU stands for.

That is why it is important for the EU leadership that Brexit hurts Britain. It has to be made an example of pour encourager les autres. The fact that this will hurt the peoples of Europe too is beside the point: it will, in the EU's view, hurt them a lot less than the alternative.

Hence the big bill for leaving. (Footnote: This is crazy, isn't it? The idea is that it is such a big bill because Britain would have paid such a lot of money if it stayed. All the more reason for leaving, surely? Once the bill is paid, that money can all go on the NHS, just like the buses said. And, hang on a minute, if you are a net recipient of EU funds then would you receive a big pay-out if you left the EU?)

Hence the utter refusal to countenance substantive re-negotiation before or after the referendum.

Hence the ease of agreeing on a common line. It's not a difficult question.

Hence the insistence on risking a lose-lose no (future) deal by forcing agreement on the terms of leaving first.

And hence the fact that there is no deal on expats. There is clearly a massive appetite in the UK for an early deal to the effect that EU nationals can stay in the UK in exchange for UK nationals staying in EU countries. Indeed, there is a pretty sizeable constituency within the UK for unilaterally agreeing to allow the EU nationals to stay here so as not to let them be pawns in a negotiation. (Footnote: why would you prefer your own citizens to be pawns instead of foreign citizens? Maybe because you think they are all pensioners on the Costa del Sol that you don't care about? Even the ones in Berlin?) Well, it's not the UK that's the problem: "Diplomatic records show that at a meeting on April 11 Piotr Serafin, chief of staff to Mr Tusk, briefed all the officials present from the EU 27 that Mrs May had made clear the UK would seek a deal on expat rights “probably as early as June”. He added that this was probably 
“not feasible” but a source with direct knowledge of the meeting said: “Serafin warned everyone present that it was very important not to give the impression that the EU was blocking an early agreement on citizens’ rights.”" (That's from here.)

In a few years' time, the chances are that the European Project, super-charged by Brexit, will have so fundamentally changed the EU that the UK will have no interest in ever re-joining (see, for example, this - interesting in several other respects too). At that point, the UK can, one would hope, be treated as no longer a threat to the Project, but a friend. But that point is not now.

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