Alex Massie

How much pain are Brexiteers prepared to inflict on us?

How much pain are Brexiteers prepared to inflict on us?
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When this magazine endorsed Brexit, it did so in typically trenchant and elegant fashion. ‘Out and into the world’ we said. The central thesis of The Spectator’s case for Leave was that the European Union has become a parody of itself, a sclerotic, irredeemably unreformable, set of institutions that are, at some core, fundamental, level intrinsically incompatible with this country’s instincts, traditions, and future.

Even so, that case, forceful though it was and certainly hardly without merit, still suffered from the wishful thinking that has, alas, been so typical of so many Brexiteers. Britain’s departure would, we wrote, ‘show reform-minded Europeans that theirs is not a lost cause’ though how the departure of the most reform-minded major country in Europe would do this was, sadly, left unexplained. Moreover, we wrote, ‘the British way is to fight rather than quit’ although in this instance it transpires that we fight by quitting.

Still, this was much better stuff than most of what was offered by the Leave campaign even if it glossed over the fact that Remain voters were hardly enthused by everything Brussels-and-Strasbourg-related either. They – we – simply though that, on balance, the status quo was preferable, and certainly lower-risk, than the alternative

Because that alternative was sold with a certain degree of – how shall we put it? – snake-oil. Look, Boris and the gang blustered, don’t worry about the detail, feel the fresh winds of national liberation. Besides, there will be a deal and it will be a good one. A better one than that which we enjoy at present. Cake for everyone.

The Europeans, you see, might be idiots to enmesh themselves in the Brussels net but they’re not so stupid they can’t see that the future well-being of Italian prosecco-makers and German automobile companies depends on there being a quick, clean, win-win, deal with the UK. So don’t worry.

I imagine eventually there will be a deal and that it will be one with which both parties are reasonably happy. If 'tis to be done, after all, 'tis better it be done tolerably well. But it can’t be said that we’re off to a great start. This being the case it is important to identify the guilty party. It certainly – because these are the rules, you know – can’t be the people who said it would be easy-peasy.

No, obviously it’s the other mob. As The Spectator argues this week, if negotiations are stalled that just shows how right we were to Leave. The EU is so stupid, so stubborn, so blind to its own interests it won’t even allow the UK to give it a cake.

According to our editorial, ‘If anything, given the UK’s trade hap with the rest of the EU, it is Europe which stands to suffer more if trade barriers are erected across the Channel. Last year, British exporters sold £240 billion-worth of goods and services to other EU countries, while they sold £310 billion-worth to us.’ Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

Those figures are accurate but misleading and, in other circumstances, I suspect The Spectator would be the first to tell you so. The relative proportions matter rather more than the absolute numbers. 44 percent of UK exports go to EU countries (a figure you may, with some reason, think depressingly high) but only eight percent of EU exports come to the UK. (As a percentage of EU exports outside the EU that figure will of course rise after Brexit.) Still, trade with the EU is worth about 12 percent of the UK economy while trade with the UK amounts to, at most, four percent of the EU’s economy.

From which it should be obvious that one party has more at risk in this negotiation than the other. This might be regrettable, it is also, I am afraid, unavoidable. Of course, as The Spectator argues, no deal would be bad for the EU but if we accept that – and we should – logic demands we recognise that, according to the terms set by The Spectator itself, no deal must be very much worse for the UK than it is for the EU. Because, again, the EU is a larger market for the UK than the UK is for the EU. Evidently this is harder to grasp than you might think.

And I am afraid that even The Spectator cannot quite escape the trap of wishful thinking. ‘The weakness of [Michel] Barnier’s position’ we write, ‘is that commercial interests within the EU know full well what is at stake and they are not going to tolerate this obstinacy for ever. There will come a time when individual member states begin to question whether he is engaged in a purely political battle, one in which he is prepared to harm EU industries to score a perceived moral victory over the UK.’

Of course it is a political battle. In the first place, the EU cannot afford to offer Britain the ante-Brexit status quo. There has to be a cost to leaving, otherwise what value does membership have? We might prefer it otherwise but logic requires – requires! – the EU to accept some pain, however reluctantly, in pursuit of other, wider, larger, objectives.

Naturally, the reverse is also the case. Which is why Brexiteers continues to say ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ (although since they also say they really want a deal this means something worse than a bad thing is actually better than that bad thing. Which is an interesting approach.)

In any case, the non-economic case for Leaving, as articulated by this very magazine, accepted that there might be some bumps on the road towards taking back control of our economy and democracy but these were worth it when measured in the greater scheme of things. Some pain would be worth it. In other words, the Brexiteers made a virtue of precisely the same logic they condemn now it is being followed by the EU.

It would be a grand thing if the UK’s hand was stronger – though sceptics should also recall that the UK’s hand is not quite as weak as they sometimes think – but even a strong hand loses when it’s matched against an even stronger hand. And that, at best, is the position in which the UK finds itself.

One could even put it this way: ‘There may come a time when individual voters begin to question whether the UK government is engaged in a purely political battle, one in which it is prepared to harm UK industries to score a perceived moral victory over the EU.’