I was very interested to hear Lord Hill on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning (he was the set-piece political interview, this time with Nick Robinson, about ten past eight). Lord Hill was the member of the Commission nominated by the UK government from 2014, resigning immediately after the referendum vote. He did not immediately impress at his confirmation hearing, although he was well-enough regarded to have earned a standing ovation from MEPs on his departure. (Or maybe it was in sympathy with the honourable position he took in resigning.)
Anyway, and despite his short-term appointment, he is sufficiently well-placed to comment insightfully on Brussels politics.
Three things he said in particular were worth noting, however (aside of the well-quoted ‘stupid’ Brexit or ‘intelligent’ Brexit*). Firstly, he spoke of ‘Europeans’, not including UK citizens, as an apparent race of ‘others’: this is of course a classic mistake (a similar attitude underpinned much of why we did not join the EU at the outset) but it is evidently a revealing one. The UK is a part of Europe; ‘Europeans’ are not a race of ‘other people’ living ‘over there’; and, in this country, we are all Europeans. Well, perhaps we might forgive a slip of the tongue; but, secondly, he referred to the EU as a ‘romantic project’. This is actually a highly patronising comment given the reasons for, and the gains that have been made from, increasing European integration – as if the UK somehow stands aloof on a higher, more realistic plane (and as if it has not also shared in the benefits of peace around the whole continent). The EU is far from a ‘romantic project’, it is – in sharp contrast – a deeply political one which has been inordinately successful in overcoming the problems which had led to Europe being at war for much of the previous seventy years (and in which this country also lost many men and women), by putting things above the level of the nation state and in establishing a space in which pragmatism might flourish. If we persist with the notion that it is actually something other than this, we will lose.
Perhaps more importantly, however, he also referred to the EU as being oriented towards making deals and that, despite the rhetoric, the EU is, as a result of this history, always likely to end up striking a deal with an exit-bound UK. We frequently hear something similar from Brexiteers, too – that the EU has more to lose (in terms of trade) than the UK and that of course it will end up ‘coming round’ to agreeing a deal which is a ‘good’ one for the UK. (Forgetting, of course, that ‘the EU’ is made up of 27 separate countries all of whom have different levels of trade and greater or lesser amounts to lose from this. The EU might, in terms of cash, have a much higher amount of trade with the UK than the UK does with the EU, but it is a bloc, not a single entity. But I digress.) If this is true, that the EU is, substantially, a deal-maker, this is because EU decision-making is oriented towards consensus politics; moving cautiously, often at the pace of the slowest, but always at a level when there can be a very broad level of agreement about the way forward.
There can, of course, be no consensus within EU member states (and that, at least for the time being, continues to include the UK) around Brexit – consensus is simply not possible when one party wants to go in the reverse direction to the rest. Moving at varying levels of pace has been problematic enough, but at least, formerly, all EU members were moving in roughly the same direction and that made consensus possible. That is clearly no longer true, and I think we need to ensure that we remember that. This process will be difficult for politicians from the rest of the EU, too; but we above all need not to lose sight that the absence of consensus undermines the ability – to say nothing of the willingness – to strike a deal which is in the interests of all. There is no common interest, and thus no consensus, on the UK leaving the EU.
The EU is, substantially, a political construct and politics remains the most important aspect behind what the EU does. In this, it absolutely trumps the economic factors. The political importance invested in the four (not three) freedoms right across the rest of the EU provides the key as to why short-term losses will be tolerated as a means of preserving the political gains. If we fail to understand the importance of this, by misinterpreting the rhetoric as a negotiating position – and especially if we continue to argue that the EU is a ‘romantic project’ – the talks that eventually take place on the UK’s withdrawal can only go as poorly as the rhetoric from leaders in the rest of the EU indicates.
* Just to be clear: in this parish, ‘intelligent Brexit’ is deemed simply as an oxymoron.