Brussels should start listening to voters

In the last days before the European referendum I appeared on the BBC with the Brexit campaigner Andrea Leadsom. I expressed my concern that, because of the terms we would secure, our trade with Europe would suffer if we left the EU. Ms Leadsom was convinced I was wrong.

She patiently explained that German car manufacturers and other European businesses would not allow their political leaders to damage trade with Britain in order to pursue political objectives. We would get smooth, tariff-free trade. European leaders would not — could not — afford to ignore companies like that.

Equally patiently, I put the counter view. Even if Mercedes-Benz acted as she supposed, which I wasn’t sure they would, why did she believe it would work? Big businesses in Britain were opposed to Brexit because they felt it would damage their trade, yet Ms Leadsom was proposing to ignore them in order to pursue her political objectives. Why did she think European leaders would behave differently?

During the referendum campaign, as a committed Remainer, I was baffled by the confidence shown by many Leavers that Europe would easily come to terms if we left. One of the central arguments for leaving, after all, was that the EU was fixated on political integration. And now we were planning to leave, they would cease the fixation? That didn’t seem likely, to put it mildly.

In addition, we had just negotiated a new deal for Britain which, even with our continued EU membership at stake, other members had insisted could not allow any “cherry-picking” or relaxation of the four freedoms of movement (of goods, capital, services and labour). Why on earth would they shift from this position if we voted to leave? Surely it would only get stronger? And our negotiating leverage would be reduced.

So it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, overwhelmingly likely that the EU would present us with an off-the-shelf free trade deal on far worse terms than we currently have.

But . . .

Just because it was always obvious that the EU would take this position, and just because it is very likely we will have to accept it, doesn’t mean it is reasonable or right.

This week I met a senior diplomat from an EU country who, in a somewhat annoying way, shook her head at the denseness of the British who just don’t get the point about cherry-picking and so on.

Yes, that is the EU’s position. Yes, we should have expected it would be. Yes, they probably won’t budge from it. Yes, we can’t do much about it. But no, their position is not inevitable. No, they’re not merely following logic while we are away with the fairies.

Consider what has happened in Italy. The coming weeks will see a struggle for power between the populists and the far right. A sort of Iran-Iraq war of coalition making, in which one only wishes that both sides could lose. The result of Sunday’s general election was so bad that even the failure of the appalling Silvio Berlusconi came as a disappointment.

It happened at the same time as a German coalition deal which leaves the populist Alternative for Germany party as the main opposition. This is caused by their rise and the disappointing showing of both mainstream parties, but most particularly that of the centre left. Centre-left parties almost everywhere in Europe are floundering.

Meanwhile populism (in other words, parties claiming to be the “voice of the people” and usually nationalist) is in the driving seat in Poland, Hungary and Austria as well as a big presence in many other countries.

Added to all of this Britain, one of the EU’s most powerful members, has opted to leave. At what point does the EU stop to consider whether any of this might possibly be a reflection on the way it works? At what point does it stop to think whether its insistence that political integration comes before everything might not be so wise?

When David Cameron started negotiations over our status within the EU, he believed it would be part of a general reshaping of the union made necessary by the euro crisis, which had brought Greece to its knees. What he underestimated was the resistance to such a reshaping. Even though it was screamingly obvious that an overhaul of EU rules was required, it hasn’t happened because it would require referendums in other member states. Which would almost certainly reject whatever EU leaders proposed. So under no circumstances can the people be consulted.

Doesn’t this bother anybody? Does the EU leadership really think it can forever bottle up such feelings and that no harm will come of it? Look at the Italian result. It’s obvious that the economic pain entailed by euro membership played a part, along with immigration.

Britain’s aspirations may be unattainable but they aren’t mad. What we want is a close trading relationship that benefits producers and consumers across Europe. But we don’t want a superstate.

I know, I know, no cherry-picking. But even this mantra is confusing.

The idea is that we shouldn’t have any of the benefits of the EU without its “costs”. But if the EU really thinks, say, that the free movement of labour is a “cost” to members, why have they instituted it? And if they are so confident that it, like the other three freedoms, is in fact a great benefit to European economies, why do they need to work so hard to impose it? Why would they be bothered if we didn’t have it, since we’d be the losers (which, as it happens, I think we would be)?

The EU feels it must stand pat because if Britain were to get good terms then the rest will want to leave. This is a hilarious argument. It basically suggests that the EU is so lacking in confidence in its own institutions it thinks every country would leave if they got half a chance. So they need to be stopped, not by improving the EU, but by damaging trade and jobs in European countries just to teach Britain a lesson.

I don’t think the EU would fall apart if it decided to agree a bespoke deal with Britain. Of course it wouldn’t. On the contrary, I think some flexibility and leadership on the part of Brussels would strengthen the EU and increase its solidarity. It just requires some imagination. Fat chance.

Daniel Finkelstein, journalist.

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