Rethinking Europe

Brexitdämmerung? Not Really

Not just the Tories, but Emmanuel Macron and Jeremy Corbyn highlight how big the gap between Britain and the EU remains.

Credit: Gutzemberg Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The paradox of European politics in London is that the more a British Prime Minister is insulted and dismissed by EU leaders, the more popular they become back home.
  • For European nationalists, Brexit is hugely symbolic and May’s defiance of Macron, Merkel and Michel Barnier is important as it shows a big European nation -- Britain -- adopting their politics and rhetoric.
  • The combination of Tory politicians obsessed with their jihad against Europe and those who think May is a useless Prime Minister and should go is powerful.
  • The UK crashing out of Europe can no longer be excluded. A "Brexeternity" of permanent tension between England and the rest of Europe now lies ahead.

The Brexit drama is reaching crisis point. Prime Minister Theresa May goes to her annual Conservative conference next week with the apparent Mission impossible of bringing her pro-Brexit fanatical MPs into line.

The combination of those Tory politicians obsessed with their jihad against Europe and those who think she is a useless Prime Minister and should go is powerful.

But Mrs. May has two big helpmates. The first is President Emmanuel Macron who left Mrs. May quaking in humiliation at last week’s Salzburg gathering of EU leaders. Theresa May was dressed in a dramatic red jacket to stand out from the gray suits of the men of Europe plus Angela Merkel to highlight the gap between Britain and the EU.

So much for the Chequers Plan

She was told bluntly and to her face that her proposal for an ad-hoc trade relationship between the EU and the UK — the so-called Chequers Plan — after Brexit was unworkable.

That is what her hardline Brexit MPs also say, so for Macron and other EU leaders to trash her preferred option was a blow. Macron also described as “Liars” the Tories led by Boris Johnson.

But the paradox of European politics in London is that the more a British Prime Minister is insulted and dismissed by EU leaders, the more popular she becomes back home. The Brussels elites should know better. They regularly poked fun at Mrs. Thatcher’s obsessive “I want my money back” mantra in the 1980s. The more they scorned her the more the English Eurosceptics loved her.

Mrs. May is not loved but as a prelude to one of the most difficult Tory Party conferences in recent time the sense that the Salzburg summit was the EU scorning Mrs. May is actually very helpful to her.

Helpful Jeremy Corbyn

Her second helpmate is the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has grandiosely announced there should be a new election and Mrs. May should make way for a Labour government which recently unveiled its economic plan featuring strong leftist policies of state ownership, company shares being handed over to workers, a massive hike in the state minimum wage and obligatory trade union bargaining.

But on Brexit, Corbyn rejected the call for an upfront commitment to demand in Parliament that a new referendum on Brexit takes place. This was supported by the deputy leader of the Labour Party, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Tony Blair, left-liberal papers like the Observer and Guardian and numerous Labour MPs.

According to a weekend poll, 86% of Labour Party members want a new referendum but, despite briefings they would get one, Corbyn ensured that the final conference decision relegated the idea of a new referendum to a faint possibility some time after a new general election takes place.

Mr. Corbyn has never been pro-Europe and is therefore not willing to challenge Brexit. His demand for a general election will drive wavering Tory MPs into Mrs. May’s arms. They remember the electoral wipe-out for Conservatives in June 2017 and, like turkeys, do not want to vote for their own “Thanksgiving.”

So if a week ago Mrs. May seemed to be at the end of her political use-by date she may now live to fight another day thanks to Macron and Corbyn.

Labour now says it will vote for the extreme anti-European Tory nationalist rightists to reject even the Withdrawal Agreement – the base-line legal instrument to withdraw from the EU. It is not clear that all Labour MPs will act as a support base for Boris Johnson and other anti-EU fanatic rightists.

Between a rock and a hard place

Mrs. May can survive her party conference. But what then? Bit by bit, she is closing the iron maiden spikes around herself.

President Macron of France has said Europe must decide between “les progressistes” and “les nationalists.” For Macron, Brexit is the foundation stone of the Steve Bannon orchestrated campaign to win a majority in the European Parliament next year for populists who want to dismantle the EU.

Chancellor Merkel has made clear her vision of Europe is not based on the Europhobe racism of the Alternative für Deutschland and there are few takers in mainstream European politics for the idea of the illiberal populist Brussels-denigrating nationalism of Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini.

For the European nationalists, Brexit is hugely symbolic and Mrs. May’s defiance of Macron, Merkel and moderate centre-right politician like the Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is important as it shows a big European nation – Britain — adopting their politics and rhetoric.

The hills are not alive with the sound of music

The hope before Salzburg was that the calming spirit of Mozartian Alpine air would allow the gap between Mrs. May and the rest of Europe to be narrowed. Instead, it has been abruptly widened.

The UK crashing out of Europe can no longer be excluded. Still, the money is on Mrs. May and the EU agreeing a form of words that allows a political Brexit – leaving the Treaty – next spring.

Then a period of transition to allow a new economic relationship between the EU and the UK can be negotiated. But it will not be easy. A “Brexeternity” of permanent tension between England and the rest of Europe now lies ahead.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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