Is the European Union prepared to self-harm in order to make Brexit difficult? Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples?
If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out. A body that has to threaten departing members is not a club but a protection racket.
For what it’s worth, though, I have a higher opinion of our European allies than that. I believe they will act in their rational self-interest. Their objective will be to make Brexit as beneficial to themselves, or at the very least as harmless, as they can. They will want to have access to the UK market – which, on the day of our departure, will become their single largest export destination. They will want to preserve our military investment in the defence of Europe at a time when there are questions over America’s commitment to NATO. They will want to avoid the disruption that could lead to a collapse of market confidence in both Britain and the EU.
How, then, are we to explain the noises coming from Brussels? What are we to make of Donald Tusk’s insistence that the only choices are hard Brexit or no Brexit? Or of Michel Barnier’s refusal even to discuss a post-EU deal until all the details of the severance have been agreed? Or of Guy Verhofstadt’s passive-aggressive tweets?
In an elegant Financial Times column this week, Janan Ganesh argued that we should take all such statements literally. Our refusal to believe that EU leaders meant what they said, he averred, had been the root of all our misunderstandings with Brussels over the years. Our domestic arguments about opting in to bits of the single market or keeping elements of free movement were irrelevant, because whatever we wanted, the EU would decree a brutal Brexit.
The flaw in Janan’s thesis is that the EU is not speaking with a single voice. Most Eurocrats are talking tough, but most national leaders are striking a more emollient tone. Although they regret the referendum result, they don’t want to make the process any more disruptive than necessary. The Polish, Danish and Irish prime ministers, for example, have all stressed that they want to preserve the closest possible relations with the UK. They are thinking, quite properly, of the interests of their own citizens.
Why is there a difference between the Brussels institutions and the 27 national governments? Three reasons. First, national politicians are more sensitive to public opinion than Brussels functionaries. They know that at least some of their own voters share the views of Britain’s 52 per cent.
Second, being accountable at the ballot box, they have every incentive to get the best deal they can for their electorates. A situation in which, for example, fears about barriers to cross-channel trade led to a renewal of the euro crisis, would hurt everyone. In the ensuing downturn, incumbent politicians would suffer.
Eurocrats, by contrast, don’t really worry about public opinion. Just as they see the euro crisis as a price worth paying for the goal of a United States of Europe, so they see a painful Brexit as retribution for blaspheming against the doctrine of closer union.
Third, the national leaders, understanding how elections work, have accepted that the UK is leaving. By and large, the Eurocrats have not. The only way to interpret Donald Tusk’s hard-Brexit-or-no-Brexit shtick is as an attempt to keep us in. The general view in Brussels is that we may yet, as they see it, come to our senses.
When MEPs or EU officials ask me about Brexit, they usually begin along the lines of: “If you guys really do decide to leave…” When I interject that we decided that on 23 June, they smile knowingly.
I realise how odd that must sound to British readers, but look at it from the Eurocrats’ perspective. They have swatted aside anti-Brussels referendum results in Denmark (twice), France, the Netherlands and Ireland (twice). They still think – and, disgracefully, British politicians like Tony Blair and Nick Clegg encourage them to think – that, if they offer sufficiently harsh terms, we will somehow back down.
In fact, of course, they are provoking precisely the opposite reaction. Nothing toughens attitudes in Britain more than a sense that we are being bullied. If Eurocrats were a little savvier, they might offer a more attractive deal than they put to David Cameron in February, when a Leave vote seemed unthinkable. But they can’t bring themselves to do it.
At the beginning of this year, few British people wanted to leave the EU; the majority simply wanted some powers back. When David Cameron came out of the Brussels talks without a single competence repatriated, people correctly concluded that a market-only deal was impossible while we remained members. The EU had shown itself unable or unwilling to reform. The only way to get a looser deal, they correctly saw, was to leave and negotiate one from outside.
What happens now? Will we have an acrimonious divorce, or will we start from the sensible proposition that wealthy neighbours make good customers? Will we be dealing with the Verhofstadt-Barnier-Tusk irreconcilables, or with the 27 heads of government?
The treaties are clear that we should be negotiating with the 27 remaining states. The European Parliament gets a vote only on the final deal, when it is hard to see many MEPs defying the leaders of their national parties.
Then again, Eurocrats have a way of muscling into these talks, even when the treaties give them little locus. From the European Constitution to the TTIP negotiations, MEPs and Commissioners have managed to grab a larger role than envisaged by the treaties, simply because of the imbalance of time and resources. The leaders of the national governments are busy leading national governments. MEPs and Commission officials, by contrast, have little else to occupy them.
It is possible, I suppose, that Eurocrats will vindicate Vote Leave’s critique by taking control of the process and making it acrimonious. Frankly, though, it is far more likely that the 27 governments will claim their prerogatives and negotiate a deal guided by economic logic.
No one is expecting special favours for Britain. As Adam Smith put it, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”. It is not from the benevolence of our European partners that we expect their trade, but from their regard to their own self-interest.
My guess is that, two years from now, a cordial deal will have been struck. It will maintain many of the market arrangements, including the prohibition on discrimination against the goods or services of another state; it will allow for reciprocal rights to work and study, but subject to regulation; it will probably result in Britain participating in some common initiatives, and paying its share of their cost, though no longer paying for big-ticket items like agriculture and foreign aid; it will mean that our laws are supreme on our own territory.
And here’s the bonus: outside the EU’s structures, we will have little cause to quarrel with our neighbours. Our relations should become warmer than ever.
Daniel Hannan is Member of the European Parliament for South-East England and part of the Bow Group's Parliamentary Board