Just a few weeks ago, the Conservatives triumphed in the local government elections and Theresa May was hailed as an all-conquering Brexit Boudicca who could do no wrong. Now, after her general election humiliation, an opposite view has taken hold: that the government is a disaster, the country is in an irredeemable mess, Brexit has been derailed and nothing can go right. This is a sign that parliamentary recess is overdue; a great many people are -exhausted and a little emotional. But the facts, for those with an eye to see them, do not give grounds for such pessimism.
The Tories have lost their majority and deserved to do so after an awful campaign. But some 85 per cent of the public voted for parties promising a clean exit from the European Union, the better to retrieve sovereignty and freedom to negotiate our own trade deals with the rest of the world. It was a call not to withdraw from the world, but to manage globalisation better; a reminder that the nation state still matters, especially to those who look to it for protection.
The official Brexit talks were always going to be a pantomime, intended to embarrass Britain. The European Union has taken Brexit badly, and is understandably anxious that a majority of French, Spanish, Italians and Poles now say they would support a referendum on their EU membership. We can expect patronising remarks from Jean-Claude Juncker, and various staged events intended to portray Theresa May as isolated and friendless. At the last Brussels summit she was asked to give a presentation while waiters cleared away dinner cutlery. This is how the EU works — which is, in part, why so many Britons voted to leave.
The EU sells more to Britain than we buy from its member states, so it has a greater need for a free-trade deal. This basic fact will prevail in the end. Meanwhile, Britain is getting down to business with new partners — specifically the United States, with whom free-trade talks begin later this month. To be able to strike such a deal, something the EU has so far failed to do, is one of the prime advantages of leaving. Informal talks have also been taking place with India, Latin America, Israel and South Korea.
For some, free trade seems to be a good thing only when conducted with -European countries. We hear dark warnings about being shut out of the single market. Yet, when it’s pointed out that Brexit will make possible freer trade with the US, we then hear scare stories about hormone-infected beef and chlorine-soaked chickens. This perverse contradiction ignores the reality of the situation: in bilateral trade talks with the US, it will be within Britain’s power to lay down what product standards we want. We have no such power in the EU, where we can be outvoted on product standards. Brexit will, for example, give us the chance to tighten standards on livestock transportation.
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, this week signalled another change that will be to our advantage following Brexit. He announced that Britain will withdraw from the Fisheries Convention, as well as reclaiming the exclusive right to exploit fish stocks in our territorial waters, signed away by Edward Heath as a ‘common resource’. Between them, these two measures will reserve for British fishermen the waters within 200 miles of our shores, or up to the median line between the coast of Britain and neighbouring countries. Fishermen have been badly hit in recent years, and had been told that EU rules meant there was nothing the government could do to help. This is now changing.
Brexit is not, and was never, about withdrawing from Europe. It is about striking a new relationship with our neighbours — one that gives the government more freedom to fulfil obligations at home and to its allies abroad. The Ministry of Defence this week laid out details of its decision to deploy 1,500 troops for an EU battlegroup from July 2019 — even if we have left the EU by that date.
Meanwhile, Pascal Lamy, who says he was acting with the authority of chief EU negotiator Michael Barnier, warmly invited Britain to remain part of the European Research Area, which co-ordinates and funds scientific research across Europe. It is an invitation which we should have no problem in accepting, and shows that, after all, the EU is prepared to allow Britain to opt in to individual areas of European co-operation. The British-based scientists who were penning round-robin letters to the press warning of the consequences of Brexit might now be persuaded that things might not be so bad. Not only do they look like remaining in the European Research Area, but they will also have the benefit of the extra £2 billion a year of domestic funding announced in last year’s autumn statement.
The result of the EU referendum campaign was a profound psychological blow for a great many people who are still fighting it, magnifying every problem and forecasting doom. It doesn’t help that the government may be a shambles, unable to enact its manifesto and riven with infighting that goes right to the top of the cabinet.
But Brexit has its own logic and its own momentum: if it makes sense for Britain and the EU to co-operate on issues such as defence, trade, patents and scientific research, then a deal is likely. That is not blind hope, but what is happening already.