Once upon a time there was a happily married couple. She liked summer sun and sea. He liked winter snow and ski. They overcame their differences and compromised – they spent their holidays together in autumn or spring. Despite the fact that both of them suffered by hay fever in the spring and both of them loathed autumn damp.
Which is what I was thinking when I listened to Theresa May’s speech last week. There was something for everyone and a firm promise to no-one. He might get a bit of snow in a late autumn. She might spend a few hours in spring sunbathing. But otherwise both of them will be pretty miserable either because of their running noses or because of the soggy fog getting under their skin.
The analogy of the conflict between summer sun and winter snow is clear. And here is the parallel to autumn and spring:
During the referendum campaign the Leavers were so obsessed with the concept of the EU as a superstate that they now see the EU as a state entity. It is not such a thing. There are 27 independent countries. Each single nation does have a say about the negotiation with the UK. They delegate the negotiations to Mr. Barnier’s team. They do not surrender the negotiations. To treat the EU like another state with which we might sign a free trade agreement is a complete and utter misunderstanding.
This is a misunderstanding which might destroy the dynamic of the negotiations. We must remember that each member states’ parliament has to approve the deal. For the UK to actually see itself as an equal partner to the remaining 27 nations is automatically perceived as the UK elevating itself above all and any of the remaining nations. Effectively proposing that one vote (of the UK) carries the same weight as 27 votes. That is bound to solicit a frosty response from the remaining 27 states.
The required time-scale was also overlooked. The argument that ‘we have a unique starting point, where … we both have the same laws and rules’ is flawed. The issue is how the ‘collective EU’ will balance one set of preferences against another. The Spaniards with their big fishing fleet will see things differently from the Dutch with their huge merchant fleet when talking about arrangements on the sea. The Dutch and Spanish governments will take time to agree on a common ‘EU approach’ – regardless of the ‘unique starting point’.
Perhaps to understand the speech, we need to notice only the specific announcements and the specific omissions. The announcement is that the Government intention is to leave the custom union and single market. Forget about close alignment in this, associate memberships in that and innovative solutions all around. You cannot be a partial virgin. You are either in or out.
What the PM did not mention was any of the inspirational statements of the past. ‘A free trading nation’ was missing, only a fleeting reference to Global Britain. There was no promise of a ‘proud, confident and prosperous UK’. Only that we might ‘emerge’ as ‘a stronger, more cohesive nation’. The control of the ‘money, laws and borders’ was reduced to the British Parliament passing the same EU laws which we will not be able to influence now. Bearing in mind the importance of the subject during the referendum, not once the word ‘immigration’ was mentioned.
The previous promises were not only absent from the speech they were contradicted: There was a thinly veiled warning we will be actually worse off. The Parliament will not follow EU laws only at our perils (‘If the Parliament [will] not achieve the same outcomes as EU law, it would be in the knowledge that there may be consequences for our market access.’ – Imagine the outcry if the same sentence came out of Michel Barnier’s mouth).
And, of course, the immigration will continue – ‘EU citizens will [come] here, helping to shape and drive growth, innovation and enterprise’. It must be stressed again and again that the EU does not provide for ‘free movement of people’ even now. Any EU national wishing to settle in the UK must prove within three months that he/she can shape and drive growth, innovation and enterprise.Otherwise they have to leave. It was Theresa May as the Home Secretary who did not enforce this principle.
Despite the absence of aspirational goals, the ‘Mansion Speech’ will become a watershed. For the first time the British public has Brexit options in front of them. We now have the Tories who will leave the custom union and single market. We have Labour who will campaign on staying in the custom union and ‘almost’ being in single market. And we have Liberal Democrats and Greens who wish to Remain in the EU.
The choice is ours. But to exercise that choice we must secure a referendum which would confirm or reject the deal. Brexit can be reversed: the UK can still remain in the EU. If Theresa May speech was good for anything it was to confirm just that: like the couple above we might get something which suits nobody. To avoid that, we must have a vote on it.
Originally published in the Lincolnshire Reporter on 5 March 2018.