In a rational world, the British decision to break away from the European Union would have been quickly followed by attempts to minimise the damage. But the world we live in is not like that. Instead of trying to make sure that the future relationship is as amiable as possible, the people in charge of the EU assume that unless the British pay dearly for their folly, others could take their cue from them. A year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron admitted that, if offered the choice in a referendum, his country would probably have voted to leave the EU.
Given the sour mood in Brussels, it is not surprising that as Brexit Day – Friday, March 29 – edges closer, Britons of all stripes are getting jittery. They think that unless a last-minute deal with the EU is struck, their islands will be subjected to a ruthless blockade by a gang of vengeful Eurocrats seeking to starve them into submission by depriving them of the food they need to import, much-needed medical supplies and a great deal more. Theresa May’s government says that it is ready to meet such existential threats head-on. Just in case, it will put the Army on full-alert.
But perhaps Brexit won’t happen. The many who want to leave the continentals to their own devices fear that disentangling the UK from the EU could prove so difficult that, whether most of their fellow countrymen like it or not, she will remain stuck in it for years to come without having a voice when it comes to setting policies. There is much talk of a second referendum; some polls say the “remainers” would win one by a comfortable margin, others suggest that, once again, the “leavers” would come out on top.
Those who want to stay because they are fervent believers in the “European project” – because they distrust their allegedly xenophobic compatriots or because they think that in an unfriendly world people who, after all, really do have much in common should hang together – fear that while “crashing out” could have dire consequences for just about every sentient being, an outcome many seem to be looking forward to with considerable relish, the problems that are likely to arise would so infuriate even mildly pro-EU Britons that any chances of rejoining a suitably reformed bloc in the future will be gone forever.
Meanwhile, members of Europe’s political elite are watching with evident satisfaction the frantic goings-on in Westminster, where there is no agreement on how to handle Brexit and Theresa May has just lost a couple of parliamentary votes. They enjoy seeing her humbly begging them to give her enough concessions to let her win over those Tory MPs who want to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible, even if it does mean a “hard Brexit” without anything approaching a trade pact that would reduce the harm to both the UK and the EU of what seems about to happen.
They also like it when British commentators take it for granted that quitting the EU is akin to committing economic suicide or mutter darkly about cunning French or German plots aimed at dismembering the UK by keeping Northern Ireland and Scotland in “Europe” and leaving the English to skulk outside.
If nothing else, gloating over Mrs May’s travails helps them overlook the inconvenient fact that, since the Brexit referendum – which by all accounts has had a very negative impact on British business – the UK economy has performed rather better than those of Germany, France and Italy. Were it to continue to do so in the years ahead, as it well might, many Eurocrats could find themselves out of a job; the “populists” who almost everywhere are challenging the established order would be certain to take full advantage of anything approaching a British success to demand some drastic reforms.
This is why the commissioners in Brussels and their sympathisers in Berlin, Paris and other capitals want the UK to be punished for wanting to leave.
They know that unless the stroppy islanders are made to suffer badly, other countries – among them Italy and, perhaps, Sweden, the Netherlands and even France – could eventually decide that “ever closer union,” cemented as it is by the euro, is not for them and opt to break away.
The EU is in trouble not just because, as General de Gaulle once predicted would happen, the insular British – whose way of thinking has for centuries been radically different from that of most of their neighbours – would one day prefer to try their luck on the “open sea,” but also because the unelected men and women who run it from their headquarters in Brussels are trying to make all the member countries obey often arbitrary rules which are based on what they say are “European values.”
Like ideologues the world over, they are striving to subordinate people of flesh and blood who have their own traditional way of doing things to their favourite abstractions. This is the main reason why they take such a dim view of anything they think smacks of nationalism, which for them is the mother of all ills. As far as the Brussels technocrats are concerned, saying that the Italians are not Germans, or that the Greeks tend to see things differently from Swedes, is wicked and should not be tolerated. They want to impose uniformity; as the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras found out to his cost, they treat with contempt anyone who dares to protest.
Britons like to point out that the EU their country joined back in 1973 was a fairly loose trading arrangement, not the supranational state with growing sovereign powers it later became. Had it stayed that way, there would still be room for the associated countries to manage their respective economies as their inhabitants saw fit, to control immigration in accordance with the wishes of the local population, and all the many other things they had been accustomed to doing without getting overruled by a higher authority. There would certainly have been no “single currency,” a politically motivated scheme that has done an immense amount of harm to the inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries and which, in the not too distant future, could also have a disastrous financial impact on Germany.