I’ve known this since I lived in Germany back in the 1980s: Britain simply doesn’t get Europe. Britain has this idea that the Continent of Europe somehow needs its appendage – its appendix? That is to say, Britain is in a place of its own and it knows that through its superior culture and business practices it is the envy of the world. In short: Europeans are crazy to even let us go. Leave alone demand terms.
Look at Britain! They have motorcar industries, banking and fisheries… but then, so does Romania. Albeit the banks aren’t quite as impressive, their connection to Europe by way of railways is actually a lot better than Britain seems to think.
The problem for the British is that the reality of their situation is very different when viewed from the other side of the Channel. Michel Barnier, the EU’s representative for the discussions about Brexit, has already made it quite clear that the British need to make their position clear in legally binding terms. This presents something of a problem for the Brits because they’re used to shouting at people to get their way. Europe has long experience of being shouted at, this time by the Americans, whose political system is as absurd and as unhandy as the British one.
The British just aren’t ready to put their sloganeering into the kind of language that would satisfy the EU. But that’s what slogans are all about: they have no weight. The problem for the Brits is that they have signed Article 50 and that is legally binding, even if the path that brought them to this point was a trail of silly slogans.
So Barnier put his foot down and said that since the Brits had agreed to there being no hard border with Northern Ireland, the EU would impose a de facto customs union between the two Irish states. This might upset the DUP, but we are talking simple economics here: the Republic needs access to the Six Counties or it will lose a great deal of its revenue. It has to be added that this is entirely fair on the part of Barnier: he was most clear in saying that this situation would only last as long as it took the British government to organize a sensible and legally binding alternative that actually works. No daydreams this time please, Mrs May.
Oh, and the British did agree to this, didn’t they? They only have themselves to blame if measures have to be put into place before the British can get their act together.
So today, in another turn of events the EU leader Donald Tusk weighed in saying that Britain could expect the kind of deal that the Canadians have just agreed. (But without the bit where the corporations get to sue national governments – the so-called Canadian deal is the ‘Free Trade’ deal the Americans set up the EU to get through in the first place. I can’t be more specific or Google and WordPress – not forgetting Facebook – will censure me again for speaking of things I should keep quiet about.)
Tusk was quite clear that this is about trade and goods, and doesn’t have any of the mealy mouthed legalities that say that the dollar is a good and thus is traded and all that kind of crap. It works for the Americans, it’s not done them any good if you look at the reality of their economy and infrastructure. Goods means things you can kick. Sorry, handle. Trade in. This does not mean services in the way the Brits do. But that’s Britain for you.
The real problem for Britain is twofold. Firstly nobody’s interested in Britain – which since the Brits are British will come as something of a shock. Righteous indignation is the order of the day: the British are the best and are to be respected. It’s the reason the US keeps demanding people listen instead of practising diplomacy.
The other element is rather more demanding: there are countries who are part of the EFTA – the European free trade area – that Britain also chose to leave in their referendum. Most who voted ‘out’ will probably have thought (as I did) that ‘out’ meant ‘in’ the EFTA. But no, ‘out’ really meant ‘out on your ear.’ Never mind, no more Britain whining about tariffs on Chinese steel so they can get their inward investment from China to build their nuclear power plants. And the other things Britain can’t afford any longer. Like railways. Whatever, those who are in the EFTA have to abide by the kind of things that May has put red lines across. New laws, the European Courts of Justice and just about everything else the Brexiters hated so much.
Which is the real reason that May can’t pick and choose: if she wanted to do that, she would have to accept the things that Norway does – and would also have to pay up as well. Thatcher’s hard won rebates are a thing of the past, even if May wanted to be in. And still be out.
The real problem for the EU isn’t the things that are always mentioned in the British media, who as usual, have a distorted view of what is going on in Europe. But then, my last post showed this odd perception that the Brits have of their European neighbours. The British in having instigated a referendum imagined that it was such a brilliant idea that everybody would be doing it. They even suggested that Italy would. They do suggest that other countries would be so keen to follow that this would force the EU to be nice to Britain.
The real problem here is that the British news media is saying the things the British want to hear – in the way the American media tells their readers the things they want to hear about places like Syria and Iraq – and since the government of Britain is largely British, they believe the things that to a European is plain and utter nonsense. Even British bloggers on this side of the Channel show a remarkably poor understanding of how Europeans think. But then, most of them will be like the lady I met the other day on the train to Utrecht: sixteen years in the Netherlands and her Dutch went as far as ordering a meal. I didn’t ask, but I didn’t need to. I have English friends who do speak the language and their English has a very Dutch intonation.
Whatever: the British really don’t get it, and I doubt they ever will.
The EU has the weight of law behind the things they have suggested and the relentless nagging of Frau Merkel by Mrs May is going to change this. Mainly because the Germans have organized themselves around the legalities imposed on them by the EU. Anyone who thinks Merkel pushes the EU around is still thinking like an Anglo-Saxon. This is Europe, and Europe is a place where things happen in a democratic way, not in the British way. Which, by and large, is closer to the things they say about Germany.
So where do we all go from here? The British have the motorcar industry sitting on the doorstep of No 10 and will sit there until the government agrees some kind of trade deal. The banking industry is sitting on the cabinet table drinking their wine and expecting their needs to be met. The workers from the EU whose rights are in doubt are beginning to get the message and the results are already showing in the agricultural sector where British businesses are setting up in China because it’s cheaper. The NHS will stagger on for a while, the British are like that, they fight to the bitter end and then it collapses all of a sudden.
It’s how Britain works. I have my doubts as to whether they really can hold all the sides together if a Canada deal is agreed on. The alternative is a WTO deal which is essentially one of a free for all where everybody gets to put up tariffs against the minnows in the pond. Minnows like Britain.