A week after the referendum result, British MEPs arrived back in Brussels to see a huge sign in the windows of the parliament building. It read: ‘We Will Miss You!’ Well actually the ‘M’ had fallen off sometime during the morning so it could have been ‘kiss’ or even ‘diss’ but I’ll opt for the most likely option. It didn’t take long for the rest of the sign to come down.
Following the prime minister’s conference speech in September, the suggestion that foreign workers be registered and the unending jingoistic tones of the British tabloid press (they do speak English over here, by the way, and they’re very good at it), the mood turned sour very quickly.
No-one could quite understand why, at a time when international alliances are coming under immense strain from nationalism, a British prime minister should choose to proudly embrace something she had campaigned against just weeks ago, whilst threatening her hitherto partners with a trade war.
The biggest problem the UK now faces is that the government has been acting as though this is a traditional game involving a need for tough brinkmanship at the outset. They have consistently failed to recognise the political reality of needing to strike a deal not just with collective member states, but also with the transnational European parliament. It is the European parliament that gets a vote on the deal six months before the end of the two-year Article 50 countdown. If it rejects the deal, Britain will be left without any formal trade relationship not just with the EU, but with any other country in the world. This would be very bad news indeed.
MEPs from the main political groups are united with European leaders. Britain will not be allowed to have its cake and eat it, we will not be given a deal with all the benefits of the single market and none of the political pains of freedom of movement and large budgetary contributions. It is not just the politicians in Brussels that are united. Business people across Europe, including the German car industry, now see the economic cost of Britain’s exit as a necessary price to pay for the stability of the single market.
It is striking how much British ministers underestimate the unity in Europe and the strength of feeling in Brussels. Pumped up by hardliners on the front and backbenches and the pro-Brexit British press, Theresa May and her ministers have embarked on a programme of threats, blackmail, and divide and rule that puts us on a path of failure.
Even more surprising is how little grip Theresa May and her ministers have over the negotiating timetable. By rushing to trigger Article 50 in an ideological “Brexit at all costs”, Theresa May has made a rod for her own back. Once the clock starts ticking, it will be Britain feeling the pressure, not the EU27. The European parliament will need to be given six months to scrutinise the deal and vote on it six months before the end of the Article 50 process.
Thousands of issues must be resolved and the committee chairs in the European parliament will keep a hawkish eye over the impact of the negotiations on their own policy portfolios. Having 751 MEPs from 28 different countries split across 7 political groups is also likely to throw up a number of extraneous issues unique to each country and constituency. Irish MEPs will have serious questions over a new EU border with Northern Ireland. Spanish MEPs will want to address issues around Gibraltar.
The UK’s cards are limited. We find ourselves in an increasingly hopeless position because of the Government’s lack of room for manoeuvre. Unfortunately for us, politicians in the European parliament know this.