Brexit is a British problem

Conservative wishful thinking and May's EU speech

The speech by Theresa May, the British prime minister, in Florence on Friday could improve the fortunes of the UK’s negotiations on exiting the European Union. Observers will inevitably see it in the context of the ultra-simplistic views of how Brexit might succeed by two Conservatives – Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Nigel Lawson, chancellor of the exchequer between 1983-89 – that make startling reading.

Johnson set out in The Telegraph on 16 September a vision of a ‘glorious future’. A sovereign country will be finally rid of the EU’s statist shackles. It will choose what it wants from existing laws and regulations and will not have to pay a ‘divorce bill’. The wide prairies of free trade will liberate it from the obligations of a ‘vassal state’. It will rejuvenate the National Health Service with £350m per week repatriated from the EU. The increase in home-grown talents will cut the foreign intake of workers, and the country will select only the best. It will accelerate technological innovation, reform the tax system, revive the Commonwealth. Canary Wharf’s financial district will ride the waves of adversity and the UK will be the largest military power in Europe. Britain has been recognised as the second most influential player in the world.

Lawson lives in France and is impressed by its citizens’ disenchantment with the EU and its promises. In the Financial Times on 19 September he asked why May has not yet taken up Johnson’s optimistic message, forgot ‘the nonsense’ about a prolonged transition and is instead focusing on a favourable trade deal which by definition the EU will not agree, because a ‘remotely good deal for the UK might encourage others to head for the exit’. Britain should forge a special relationship with Europe along the lines of the one with the US (which is really one between a giant and a dwarf, and I wonder if that is what Lawson means). He applauds the symbolism of the prime minister speaking in Florence, since the city’s greatest days came when it was an independent state before absorption into united Italy.

Lawson berates Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, for pushing for a federal super-state. It is disconcerting that a former chancellor should realise only now that, in Europe, economic co-operation is meant to lead to political integration. This has been clear for at least 50 years.

Never mind that the £350m figure is a fake. Or that the Royal Navy doesn’t have enough fuel and spares to keep its ships afloat. Or that ‘free trade’ is much less about tariffs, more about norms and regulations. In times of decline – generational, economic and geopolitical – there is a growing temptation to seek solace in myths.

Conservative governments since 2010 have mystified the other EU members by first organising a referendum without a strategy for if the Leave side won, and then needlessly calling an early election that has deprived the prime minister of a parliamentary majority. Subsequent British squabbles have ruled out a coherent strategy.

Britain has tried to negotiate following its time-honoured tradition of dividing the opposite camp, and has been so self-absorbed that it has failed to spot that the EU, not the UK, calls the tune.

In Florence, May should try to make some sense of the mess. The EU27 will listen with interest, yet – contrary to the views of many Brexiteers – Brexit is not their No. 1 concern. The 27 see in it an unwelcome distraction from the union’s core aims. They are perplexed by what appears a colossal own goal. But they are equally confident that this is ultimately a British problem, not theirs.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-08. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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