Brexiters misunderstand the European project
What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving. The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish, it will grow . . . and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape.” Thus did Jeremy Hunt address the Conservative party conference this week.
This is a breathtaking remark. It is breathtaking because it came from the foreign secretary, the person entrusted with managing the relations of the UK with foreigners; because negotiations with the EU, a particularly important and powerful group of foreigners, are coming to their moment of crisis; because it came from a politician with a reputation for sobriety; and because it came from a man who campaigned for Remain. It is breathtaking, above all, because the parallel Mr Hunt drew between the EU and Soviet Union was so stupid and offensive.
The Soviets sent tanks into East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. The EU is hardly threatening the UK with similar brutality. It is merely stating that the proposals put forward by the British government for the withdrawal agreement, especially its “ Chequers plan”, will not work. This is not keeping the UK in a prison: this is negotiation. Disagreement with the UK’s proposals over withdrawal is just that: disagreement. The EU is right, too. The plan will not work.
In a serious country, a foreign secretary who made such a remark, at such a moment, about such important, friendly countries would be sacked. Let him follow Boris Johnson on to the backbenches. In a serious governing party, he would have been booed. But Mr Hunt said it because he believed that this sort of malevolent stupidity is popular in the Tory party. That is terrifying.
Behind the offensive remarks uttered by Mr Hunt lies a lack of the imagination needed to understand what the EU is. Yet that is a necessary condition for dealing with it sensibly, now or in future. For the people who currently lead it, the survival of the EU is an existential issue. Relations with a departing UK are, by comparison, relatively insignificant.
The great difference is that, in their bones, the English mostly lack fear. Most continentals do not. On the European mainland, only Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland survived the second world war unconquered. What was the sovereignty of the Netherlands worth in 1940? Four days. As an Irish minister told me after the Brexit referendum, first of all the EU is a peace project. But it is not built on fear alone. It is also built on hope — of a prosperous, integrated Europe able to speak up in the world.
It is legitimate to reject this project. Brexiters do. It is legitimate to believe the EU has over-reached. On monetary union, I agree. It is legitimate to believe the EU has under-reached. On defence, I also agree. But it is illegitimate for a sane person to despise the EU’s goals or hope that it will collapse into chaos.
Goals create structure. This is a peace project that works by embedding mutual relations in a framework of equally-applicable and legally-binding rules. The mutual trust necessary to make the EU work depends on this. The rules need to be clear and subject to an authoritative legal process. Once countries receive benefits without meeting obligations, the EU will disintegrate.
Chequers does not meet these requirements: it demands that the UK be outside the EU’s customs area for goods, in order to negotiate deals of its own, but also inside it, in order to get rid of EU customs and regulatory controls. The EU has red lines, too. It cannot accept such freeriding. The UK is not imprisoned; it is just not getting what it wants. Like it or not, the EU is also far more potent in these negotiations than the UK, because it is far bigger.
Chequers is itself a response to the difficulty in reaching agreement over Ireland. At the core of the EU is the idea that small countries should be protected from the big countries (and so the big from themselves). Preserving peace on the island of Ireland is more important to the EU than letting the UK’s customs area stay undivided. From its point of view, UK withdrawal created the problem, and so the UK must fix it.
I have no idea whether there will be a deal, whether parliament will pass it, or whether there will be a second vote. But, if zealots promote a “stab in the back” myth, according to which EU obduracy snatched a glorious Brexit from the British people, the legacy will be poisonous. Responsible politicians would not go anywhere near this. But Mr Hunt is not a cause of the derangement; he is a symptom