While some may doubt Donald Trump’s claim to be a friend of Britain’s, his intervention in the Brexit debate this week has been timely and depressingly accurate. The deal that Theresa May has brought back from Brussels, and which she will put before the Commons on 11 December, is indeed a good deal for the European Union. Brussels retains control over the British economy but no longer has to deal with the British in its various voting procedures. Britain agrees not to become more competitive through regulatory reform, and its chances of striking trade deals are slim.
So Trump was merely saying, in his usual offhand manner, what other world leaders have been thinking. His thoughts are echo-ed in Australia, which had been looking forward to doing a trade deal with the UK. Tony Abbott, its former prime minister, has argued in this magazine that Australians cannot understand why Britain should be so terrified of what is wrongly called a ‘no-deal Brexit’. Australians know this as ‘world trade rules’; as Abbott says, if Aussies can handle this system, then why should the UK, the world’s fifth-largest economy, think it can’t?
May has spent much of the past two years advocating a globally minded Brexit. At Davos in January 2017, the same month as the Lancaster House speech in which she committed herself to seeking a free-trade deal with the EU rather than membership of the single market and customs union, she put it well. The UK has often been at the forefront of economic and social change, she said. It will ‘step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world’.
Where are the signs of such leadership now? Her free-trade Brexit — a ‘Canada plus’ as it was described — has evaporated. In its place, we have a deal that could be called ‘Remain minus’, which involves staying bound by EU rules on trade and product standards while paying a little less than we have been paying but having no say in those rules. And incidentally, the £39 billion she has agreed to pay could rise significantly if (or when, many would say) the transition period is extended beyond two years.
Her proposal does free us from subsidising Andalusian tomato-growers through the Common Agricultural Policy, and she says control over fisheries will come, too. But how long would this last? Just last weekend, Emmanuel Macron made clear that he expects access for French fishermen to British waters, as the price for a trade deal that has yet to be negotiated.
Even May’s best claim for her deal, that it ends free movement, is questionable, given that the EU may try to extract further concessions on this while we are trying to negotiate an exit from the backstop.
It is depressing to see Brexit now being sold only as a means of migration control. And to see May resort to claiming that EU migrants had somehow ‘jumped the queue’ to enter Britain. This is the language of a Little Britain, not of a Global Britain.
Until Chequers in the summer, the way ahead seemed clear: a UK-US trade deal would be hammered out over the next couple of years, ready to take effect the moment the transitional phase of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU came to an end in December 2020. By that time, we were led to believe, Britain would have trade deals with numerous countries all ready to come into effect. That now looks next to impossible, and the government no longer talks about trade deals as being anything other than a theoretical possibility. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has spent two years making preparations for an era that looks as if it might never arrive.
Why go through all of this fuss for a deal that is in some important ways worse than EU membership? Yes, getting out of the EU political project is vital. But Brexit should do more than just that.
The Global Britain theme, which is still supposed to be UK government policy, is a good ideal: if May won’t fight for it, then others must. If her plan is voted down by parliament, as looks likely, there will be a brief opportunity to pursue a Plan B. This is when the government ought to re-read the speeches that the Prime Minister and foreign secretaries have been making over the past two years, and try to deliver a policy that is in line with the promises which Conservative ministers have repeatedly made.
If she loses the vote on 11 December, May will have a chance to try to reopen negotiations when she heads to Brussels two days later for the European Council. When she does, we can offer to pay more money if needs be, and to accept some friction at the border, but no more than we do with imports from the US and the rest of the world outside Europe.
May must remember that the purpose of leaving the EU was not to hoist up the drawbridge but to gain the freedom to strike new alliances. When this magazine endorsed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and advocated leaving the EEC in the referendum of 1975, it used the same words on the front cover: ‘Out, and into the world’. A simple ambition. It is still not too late to achieve it.