The past three years of agonising non-progress on Brexit have damaged Britain in many ways. Our political institutions have looked ridiculous and, through endless uncertainty, unnerved markets. But we have also learned much about the EU. Its behaviour, and that of its officials, has served to reassure those who were uncertain about their Brexit vote that the UK could never be happy as part of this club. Better to be the EU’s greatest ally than its most reluctant and disruptive member.
But post-Brexit relations will be shaped, in no small part, by the process of leaving. The Prime Minister’s trip this week to Luxembourg was a good example of what can go wrong. For weeks, the UK government has been working on changes to the Irish backstop, in an attempt to generate a compromise that can satisfy both the EU and MPs who three times rejected the previous withdrawal agreement. The Prime Minister proposes a compromise that would create a single market for agricultural goods in Ireland but would otherwise allow Northern Ireland to diverge, along with the rest of the UK, on other matters of regulation and trade.
Yet instead of constructive discussions on this proposal, the occasion degenerated into a piece of political theatre. Jean-Claude Juncker showed his usual intransigence, and his minions were dispatched after the lunch to say that Britain had failed to table any new proposals — in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. Then Johnson was hustled towards a press conference with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, which officials tried to stage within yards of jeering campaigners. When Johnson declined to take part in such circumstances, Bettel went ahead with it anyway in an attempt to embarrass his guest. He started by saluting the protesters, and ended up addressing them.
His behaviour did not just appal British officials, but the many Europeans watching who can see what is at stake. Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Merkel’s CDU, put it well when he said that Bettel’s ‘public venting’ did not help the European cause. Even without a deal there will be a post-Brexit life, he said, so: ‘Everyone needs to behave in a way that avoids animosity.’ As he knows, when the next European security challenge arises, no one will be going to Luxembourg asking for military assistance.
This is why the temptation to punish Britain now, and embarrass its ministers when it looks as if they are in a bind in parliament, is dangerous. It risks turning public sentiment against European co-operation in general. It was striking this week that the strongest riposte to Bettel’s outburst came from Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK. He had a rather different message: ‘We stand with the people of the UK and we always will.’ This is the language of an ally. Europe, too, is our ally: our closest and our best. But this fact has at times been forgotten during the Brexit negotiations, with EU officials often adopting a pointlessly caustic tone.
There is no need to amplify the weakness of the British position. It is painfully apparent. We have a government unable to govern, and a Prime Minister who was successfully taken to court for deciding when parliament should go on holiday. We are midway through one of the most tumultuous projects in our history: wresting our politics and institutions from the EU’s centre of gravity and realigning them with the priorities of those whom they serve. It is an instruction delivered by a referendum, against the wishes of most politicians, business leaders, trade unions, public officials and the entire establishment.
But the difficulties Brexit has encountered, and the many obstacles thrown in its way, show no sign of having diminished public appetite for it. An EU which was more aware of and respectful of public opinion would have appreciated this, and focused on the post-Brexit relationship. A less aloof EU would have acknowledged the decision of its second-largest net contributor to leave the bloc as a failure on its own part, but its leaders seem to lack this insight. Their attitude is that which Bertolt Brecht mocked in his 1953 poem ‘The Solution’: ‘… the people / had forfeited the confidence of the government / And can win it back only / by redoubled efforts.’
A second referendum, giving the British people the chance to regain the confidence of their MPs, is unlikely to go down well. For Britain to rescind Article 50 and remain in the EU — a course the Liberal Democrats voted to make party policy this week — is unthinkable both from a democratic and geopolitical point of view. We could not go back to sitting at the top table of EU affairs with such a poisonous atmosphere between us and other member states. Brexit will have to happen; it is within everyone’s interests for it to do so with the least amount of acrimony.
The EU need not wonder how to handle this. The answer is simple: to complete the deal that the Prime Minister is offering rather than risk the no-deal situation he is more than willing to implement. This is not just about ending the old European arrangement, but creating a new one. It would be tragic if those in charge of building Europe lose sight of this crucial fact.