Theresa May's disappointing result at Salzburg was not for lack of charm, persuasiveness or gravitas
Her European counterparts could and should have made more of an effort to at least pretend to engage with the Chequers plan, if only to give her support at a difficult time, and for fear of Boris Johnson
They said that she seemed angry at the EU Summit in Salzburg, and her unscheduled stiff and haughty Downing Street statement seemed to confirm it. Indeed, Theresa May made no secret of her disappointment, complaining that while she and Britain had shown the EU much respect, it had not been reciprocated.
So annoyed was she that she returned to a much earlier formulation of her approach – studiously avoided for many months now. “No deal is better than bad deal” are words not heard since she lost her majority in the disastrous snap election last year. Now they are back. They will help get her through the Conservative Party conference, but could wreck the British economy.
Difficult as it may be for the prime minister not to take things personally in such circumstances, she should at least take comfort in the fact that the harsh rejection of her Chequers plan wasn’t down to any lack of charm, persuasiveness, or gravitas on her part.
Her European counterparts, as she indicates, could and should have made more of an effort to at least pretend to engage with the Chequers plan, if only to give her support at a difficult time, and for fear of Boris Johnson. She is right that a more detailed and considered EU response could have been offered. If the EU finds fault with the proposed facilitated customs arrangement, then perhaps it’d be good enough to explain why? If it thinks the “common rule book” will not work, then why not state the reasons so both sides can work on sorting them out? For her part, Ms May has pledged that the UK will make new proposals on the Irish border, and has accepted the moral obligation to do so.
Still, the best salespeople in the world would not have been able to convince the EU 27 to buy her proposal as it stands. As in 2016 and 2017, in 2018 they have no special compelling reason to compromise on their determination to protect the integrity of the single market, and, in particular, protect Ireland’s interests on the border question. Any British premier would have flopped equally spectacularly at the summit, and suffered “humiliation”. The Chequers plan is doomed by its own flaws. It can’t be redeemed, and the EU seems to think that even to try would be a waste of time. Manners are not the issue – substance and logic are the obstacles.
There is also a myth forming that all would be well with Brexit if only a different team was on the field. On the Labour side that would be Jeremy Corbyn, Barry Gardiner and Keir Starmer. Yet their vague proposal for “a” customs union and a “jobs-first Brexit” are as whimsical as the Chequers version. On the Tory side, his fans claim that only Boris Johnson’s rhetorical brilliance and bulldog spirit can break the deadlock. Walking out is sometimes suggested as the ideal negotiating tactic. Again, it is a myth, and a dangerous one.
Most of the prime minister’s arguments are about what Europe “ought” to do, if it were being pragmatic and reasonable, and not “ideological”. If only they would engage, she seems to be saying. Well, fine, but what if Europe simply doesn’t wish to be “reasonable” and engage? What if what they propose remains “unacceptable”? What then – when push comes to shove?
All Ms May has to fall back on is her worthless threat to opt for “no deal” – which sounds dramatic, and is, but would hurt Britain far more than it would hurt the EU. It would also, by definition, mean a hard border in Ireland. Why does Ms May want to cut Britain’s nose off to spite its face?
Britain cannot force the EU to do anything, “reasonable” or not. If we were staying in – perhaps; as we are leaving, no chance.
For the UK and the EU, a moment of reckoning looms. It is inconceivable that some hitherto overlooked way of solving the Irish border issue will be discovered by November. Much the same goes for many other issues. The deadlock in Brussels and Westminster is going to remain.
Parliament seems unable, even unwilling, to make a decision, and, in all events, it is one that must be taken by the people. A general election isn’t going to be gifted to Labour by an embattled Tory government, and would, again, resolve nothing. Sovereignty rests with the British people. They, not Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Barnier, Emmanuel Macron, nor Boris, Jacob, Theresa or Jeremy should have the final say. It’s all our futures.
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