Back in the summer of 2015, a year before the Brexit vote, I was summoned to the German Embassy in London for a special briefing by a senior member of Germany’s Social Democrats. The man from the SPD didn’t mince his words: David Cameron might secure a few small concessions in his forthcoming renegotiation with the EU, but it was inconceivable that he could obtain any significant changes in Britain’s relationship with Europe. For Germany, free movement of people within the European Union was sacrosanct – and even if Deutschland had been willing to change the rules for Britain’s sake, any major alteration would need to be ratified by all the other member states. That process would take years, not months. There simply wasn’t time. Cameron had raised British expectations to an unrealistic level, and any Briton hoping for a brand new deal was bound to be disappointed. The man from the SPD was right. The rest is history. A year later, Britain voted out.
This was an important story, but at the time it didn’t get much traction. Why not? Because it didn’t suit the needs of either side in the great Brexit debate. Neither Europhiles nor Europhobes wanted to talk down Cameron’s chances. Remainers didn’t want to spread doom and gloom about the intransigence of our EU allies. Leavers preferred to keep their powder dry, so they could give Dave both barrels when he returned from Europe virtually empty handed. So both sides kept shtum, and the public were left with a vastly inflated notion of what Berlin might be prepared to do to keep Britain sweet.
Eighteen months on much has changed, yet the situation is strangely similar. A new Prime Minister is about to embark on yet another renegotiation with the EU, and even though this time the negotiation is about exit terms, rather than the terms which might have persuaded the UK to stay, British expectations remain just as unrealistic as they were under David Cameron.