So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a little thing like evidence doesn’t appear to be making a lot of inroads into a lot of people’s ideas about Europe. A logical person might expect that if someone voted to leave because they wanted to provide £350 million a week of new resources to the NHS that they would be starting to worry about the fate of that NHS when it became obvious that this promise was a lie. By now you might expect the average leaver to be rather worried about the strain on the NHS of losing so many foreign medical experts at a time when we will be welcoming back several hundred thousand elderly returning EU expats to the waiting lists.
Instead the opinion polls are remarkably static. There has been some slight increase in sympathy for the remain side but nothing dramatic and clear cut. The £ has crashed. Inflation has gone up to 3% whilst wages have failed to keep pace. The UK economy has slowed down to 1% growth rates and become the slowest and weakest of all the major economies. The balance of payments remains fiercely negative despite a weak currency. The government finances still aren’t in balance and the opportunity to stimulate the economy via low interest rates and creating free money via quantitative easing has come to an end. There has been nothing but deterioration in the economy since the referendum yet there is no major backlash in public sympathy against Brexit.
Why? Where is the real popular outcry of former Brexit voters crying out that they have been conned?
Part of the reason for their absence lies in the simple fact that most people in the UK are proud to belong to the tribe that calls itself British and Leavers tend to be even more solidly in that camp. They may be unimpressed by the behaviour of the leaders of their tribe but it is very easy to persuade them to be even more unimpressed by the behaviour of their perceived enemy. Put more simply, has the behaviour of the EU towards Britain since the Brexit vote helped to persuade Leavers to waiver? Or has it re-enforced their annoyance about Europeans behaving badly towards the UK?
I have enormous criticisms of the way the UK has behaved in the negotiations. The government has come across as utterly confused about what it wants, when it wants it and how it is going to prepare to achieve it. Even the most basic of obvious preparations such as training new border guards in new systems and creating the necessary paperwork and computer programmes hasn’t even begun. It has taken months for the government to understand that this cannot possibly be ready by March 2019 and to face up to the need for a period of transition during which we will have to pay into EU budgets without benefitting from or controlling those budgets.
I therefore completely understand the frustrations of EU negotiators faced with incompetence, dithering, mixed messages, politically convenient meaningless soundbites and confusion. But that doesn’t mean that I have to admire the way the EU itself has behaved and sign up uncritically behind the actions of that particular tribe.
The EU is mishandling the Brexit negotiations almost as badly as the British are and their mistakes are one of the prime reasons why there has not been a big enough backlash against Brexit in the UK. When someone tells you that you must negotiate the amount you are going to pay to leave before they will even begin to start discussions about how we are going to sort out the practical mess that doesn’t inspire me with confidence. It doesn’t make me love the institution that has taken that bizarre and unhelpful stance. I want the EU to be keen to crack on with discussing every issue and to make as much progress on every front as was possible whilst being clear about the things that must eventually be solved. Crudely telling the UK what it was allowed to talk about in negotiations wasn’t the way to do that. It was an action guaranteed to get people’s backs up in the UK and to confirm a lot of people in their prejudice that we have to get out of the organisation that was behaving that way.
That mistake has been badly compounded in the last month. Theresa May finally got round to facing down the most extreme people in her party and offering to talk sensibly about transition. She has come to conclusion that if the UK is going to do something stupid like Brexit then slow and steady well organised stupidity is better than the rash and reckless kind.
May’s offer that the UK would pay in to EU budgets for two years and transition slowly ought to have been acceptable to the EU as a basis for much wider negotiations. Instead the EU has allowed itself to become a significant part of the blockage to moving the negotiations on at the necessary speed.
Any sensible flexible negotiator from the EU who was focused on the best interests of both sides would have followed up May’s speech by saying “thank you for understanding what we’ve all been saying for months – now let’s get on with working out the detail of how much you pay and how the transition and leaving arrangements operate because we are badly running out of time”.
What we have heard instead from the EU is more like “aha, it looks like we’ve got May where we want her. Let’s see how desperate she gets and how much more we can screw out of her before we even think of letting her off the hook.”
That may feel like good short term negotiating tactics but it is very bad politics. It has played straight into the hands of those who are desperate to create a divide between the UK and the EU so they can Americanise our economy and society. It creates a real risk of the UK crashing out via the hardest of Brexits. With all the chaos that would create.
The EU ought to be challenging the myth that the UK is negotiating to get out of a an organisation which constrains it and illustrating that it is leaving a helpful collaborative mechanism over which it currently has some reasonable level of control. They ought to be reminding us that every new free trade deal will be policed by international corporate lawyers outside of UK parliamentary control and so will be much less democratic than anything that happens within the EU. The ought to be demonstrating the contrast between being out there in the cold competitive world and being inside a block of friends and neighbours.
Instead they are behaving a bit like they did against Greece. If the UK government looks weak and incompetent then the EU looks arrogant and high handed. And the result is to push a lot of people even deeper into a conviction that they want to get away from an organisation that behaves that way.
I therefore believe that Remainers need to be extremely careful. It is not helpful to simply side with EU negotiators and declare that the UK is the only party behaving badly. We need to be clear that both sides are riddled with faults. I didn’t vote Remain because I thought the EU was perfect and needed no reform. I voted Remain because I thought that it was possible to reform and improve the EU and it at least afforded some degree of democratic control over necessary international collaboration on trade and so much more. I shouldn’t have to drop my critical faculties and admire every move that organisation makes just because I wish my country to remain a member of it.
The message should come through strong and clear from those of us who live in the UK and want to remain inside the EU. The UK government needs to get real about recognising the realities of leaving and to move on from obsessing about its own petty political divides. The EU also needs to wise up.
If both sides don’t start being more flexible and begin working out the detail of what happens next on every possible front then there is going to be an almighty mess. No one will gain from that and it will not be easy to persuade UK voters to change their minds and be sensible if they perceive themselves to be faced by bulling behaviour. It is time to move on from being uncritical supporters of a tribe and to put pressure on both sides to start solving urgent problems. Before it is too late.