The humiliation of Theresa May at the Salzburg EU meeting came as a shock not just to her but to the British media. They had obsessed with stories, largely an invention of themselves, that foretold a story of the EU having problems with the Chequers plan but needing May as someone from the British side with whom they could negotiate. The alternative was ultra-Tories like Johnson and Rees-Mogg. Coming up to the Tory Party conference, the EU would see the need to help her deal with her fractious party so that a deal could eventually be struck.
Behind such invented calculations lay an implicit understanding that Britain was negotiating with the EU from a position of some strength, and a deal was equally vital for both. Once again, unfortunately, the relationship with Europe was being refracted through disputes within the most successful political party in the world. No one stopped to think what use Theresa May was to the EU with her unacceptable plan anyway.
The outcome was May giving a shell-shocked press conference at the end of the proceedings having suffered utter humiliation. What had been said a hundred times before about the flawed plan was said again, and this time on social media with the EU Council President Donald Tusk offering cake to May on Instagram, but with no cherries.
British journalists cannot be accused of not being self-aware. They are most aware of their position in the gossip chamber of Westminster with its paintings and busts of previous great British leaders who once stood astride a world empire. They are aware that by being there they are part of this history. As media creations themselves, they know that they are part of the show and that, after the important political personalities, the story is often about them, what they think and what they say. And what they think and what they say is a product of this environment, the environment of a great nation with a singular history.
So their views and their impressions are the great British public’s window into this world of high politics., When a sweaty Theresa May appeared in a cramped room in Salzburg desperately trying to recover any sort of composure in order to present some sort of reassuring message, the assorted British journalists reported what they saw in front of them – desperate humiliation.
This was easy because it’s not as if it was new – May has a habit of drowning on stage. She coughed and spluttered for hours through her Party conference speech and stood as a rabbit in the headlights for weeks during the last general election, a very strong and very stable rabbit.
Both media and politicians were acutely aware of these unflattering optics, so May decided to have another go, and change them by making the same stupid speech again when she got home, this time in Downing Street, in front of wood panelling and two union flags. A “stern word” was given, according to the Daily Express, and May warned the EU – she wanted RESPECT! – as she looked directly at the camera and gave everyone a “stern” look.
If only the words coming out of her mouth made any sense.
“At this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals”, she said. As if we had all forgotten that the reason we were only being told now that her plan was pants was because she had spent eighteen months trying to find one. Not easy with the light shining in your eyes.
As if we had not also just heard her say in her speech, only seconds before, that in fact the EU had given her not one but two “counter proposals” and had, ad nauseam, explained to her that she could not cherry-pick the Single Market – the “detailed explanation” why her Chequers plan was unacceptable.
This nonsense after May had turned up at Salzburg having informed her EU hosts that this was the deal, take it or leave it. She had met the Irish Taoiseach in the morning and told him that despite promising it for months, the British would not have a detailed backstop plan to prevent a hard border ready for an October meeting.
Instead, in her Downing Street speech, she said that “I want to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that in the event of no deal we will do everything in our power to prevent a return to a hard border.” A statement so jaw-dropingly at variance with reality one wonders if she had taken some mind-altering substance before saying it.
But this sort of duplicity was also hardly new. Her Brexit secretary had already said that their Withdrawal Agreement with the EU committed Britain to nothing. Her environment secretary Michael Gove speculated just before Salzburg that “Yes, the Chequers approach is the right one for now . . . but there’s one critical thing, a future prime minister could always choose to alter the relationship between Britain and the European Union.” Why then could anyone in the EU believe that any agreement reached with these people would be honoured?
“In the meantime, we must and will continue the work of preparing ourselves for no deal” said May. ‘So we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress.” Unfortunately, by saying that it’s now over to the EU, and that she will walk away from a bad deal, she really means that she won’t be going anywhere, or rather, with her strategy, she has nowhere to go.
Having threatened the EU with no deal, and then complaining that the EU were threatening Britain when starting to prepare for one, she faces the consequence that a no deal will only bring her utter discredit at a personal level and the UK a disaster at the economic and social level. Her foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt aks the EU not to look at the “abyss’ of a no deal even while his leader is busy threatening it again. Not since the sheriff in ‘Blazing Saddles’ threatened to blow his own head off has a threat seemed so bizarre, except this time it’s not funny.
Napoleon is often credited with saying that you can doing anything with bayonets except sit on them, although the quote has been attributed to Talleyrand, Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister, who said: “… My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them… “. This appeared to mean that Napoleon had to make the decision to move forward with his campaign or die by failing to act.
Sooner rather than later someone will tell Theresa May that she can do lots of things by wrapping the butcher’s apron round herself, including making stupid speeches at Downing Street, but she will die a political death and take the UK into the ‘abyss’ if she thinks she can wrap it round herself and wait for the EU to come up with something to save her.
Her problem is that while you may be able to do lots of things with a flag there is not a lot useful you can do with Brexit. May and her ultra-Brexit colleagues in the Tory Party have argued that Britain can make a success of Brexit. So, unfortunately, does Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, but at least with them it is to be fervently hoped that 86% of the Labour Party’s members will save them from themselves, something the Tories will not do for May.
The EU says Brexit will weaken and damage the EU never mind the UK and no one will be a winner. EU sources have also said that it’s not their business to make Brexit a success (even if that were possible) and it’s not in the EU’s interest to help the British become more competitive against the EU as a result of it.
The EU is of course correct. It is much bigger and more powerful. Trade with it is much more important to the UK than trade with the UK is for the EU. It has by far the bigger market, with a much more competitive productive base, and in those sectors it is not so competitive in, such as financial services, it is gaining by the relocation of companies from the City of London as the reality of Brexit bites. Unlike Icarus, the hubristic Brexit project of a still greater Britain will never even get off the ground.
Britain can leave the EU, and can do so in a manner that may, or will, receive the cooperation of the EU, but only if the means by which it is done does not threaten the integrity of the EU and its Single Market. Despite it not being their problem, the EU has an interest in these steps being taken – the British can stay in the European Economic Area (EEA) or it can negotiate a free trade deal like that of Canada.
The latter will not make up for the market access lost by Brexit and will confirm the stupidity of Brexit. Canada has its own regional free trade agreement in NAFTA so the agreement with the EU is an extension of its capacity to trade. The British however, will be replacing one big trading arrangement with a much smaller one.
Britain could also negotiate access to the EU Single Market through the EEA, but this will mean subordination to EU rules, which the British can attempt to influence but cannot help determine. The EEA also involves negotiations on what the EU will accept or reject so the problem is displaced into a more orderly framework but the fundamental issues of difference are not thereby resolved, and nor are all the problems created by the Tories’ duplicitous approach.
Theresa May will either have to capitulate or drive into the wall of a no deal. In the first case she may be removed by the Tory Party before she can get away with it, and in the second case it would be better for her if she was.
The Brexiteers could replace her and either go for no deal themselves or do their own volte-face and go for the Canada type free trade deal, although in this case they are more likely to fall out with each other, as would certainly be the case when it became clear to them that this wouldn’t solve the question of the Irish border and further retreat was required. Taking the blame for the disaster that a no deal would entail has so far prevented them from wielding the knife on May. The whole shower are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
All this would not be the case if Brexit made any sort of sense but of course it doesn’t.
So what about our side?
It is not the job of socialists to cheer Emmanuel Macron when he calls the Brexiteers liars, even when they are, or to wave EU flags, as if the EU was a force for good.
It is our job to oppose Brexit because doing this lies on the route to our alternative – the unity of Europe’s workers – not its capitalist states. It is not possible to achieve this unity while accentuating national differences, by erecting national borders, and seeking solutions through nationalist initiatives. ‘National sovereignty’, however understood, is not our goal.
The rise of xenophobia in Britain facilitated by Brexit will not be effectively countered by portraying its supporters as simply fascists that should be opposed, while having nothing to say about the Brexit they promote. Or even worse, actually supporting their Brexit policy as some on the left stupidly do.
The socialist alternative is not about destroying workers’ living standards, wrecking the place and pretending we can start from scratch, in some misguided ground-zero approach unpolluted by foreign interference. The Brexit disaster provides socialists with the opportunity to deliver an important blow against great British nationalism and it should be taken.
The disaster of Brexit should be condemned for what it is. Its architects should be pilloried. The alternative should be spelled out, which isn’t a good Brexit, because that doesn’t exist, but a defeat of the Tory Government and a reversal of the Brexit decision. Not as the end of the struggle over Europe but as the starting point of a fight to unite Europe’s workers.
We should state clearly that the problem has not been too much European unity, but too little, and the wrong sort of what there has been.