ANDREW ADONIS: The myth of EU capitulation

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holding the European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parli

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holding the European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Andrew Adonis explains how the prime minister lost touch with reality.

Theresa May is behaving as if she is at Dunkirk. But this time the boats aren't coming. For as throughout Brexit, the defeats are self-inflicted and Britain has simply got to stop fighting itself.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Brussels was supposed to have surrendered months ago. The 'easiest trade deals in history' were by now going to be lined up for signature and the huge 'Brexit dividend' returning from Europe. Even in her present extremity, Theresa May claims there will be a last-minute act of deliverance.

The problem is that May and the Brexiters long ago lost touch with reality. The only difference between the prime minister and her critics on the no-deal right-wing is whether they want to turn defeat into a rout.

Let's start with the truth. Europe isn't weak or repentant. The EU27 have more than seven times our population, the union is not disintegrating – not even the euro, which has survived the Greek crisis. No one else will follow Britain through the exit; on the contrary, the EU has never been so popular as it is today on the continent, in reaction to a Brexit which is clearly disastrous for Britain. And the strength and leadership of Germany is intact.

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Angela Merkel, having pre-announced her departure after 13 years as a strong and stable chancellor, looks set to remain in office longer than May, and will hand over to an anointed successor who espouses continuity at home and abroad.

More truth. Contrary to the Brexiters' myths, we are not in a battle with the EU but with ourselves. The EU did not attack Britain and it is still not attacking Britain. It was Britain that decided to evacuate Europe.

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Having spent nearly three years threatening to depart, and having now reached Dunkirk, we obviously can't leave and stay at the same time. So we need to decide which we are really doing.

If we want frictionless trade, and no loss of it, then we need to stay in the single market and the customs union. Simple. If we don't want to be a 'vassal' rule-taker, then we also need to stay in the European Council and the European parliament – ie. the whole European Union. Simple. Every act of disengagement jeopardises our prosperity – and every act of disengagement has been at our request, not at the behest of Brussels.

The only division between May and Jacob Rees-Mogg is how far they want to disengage, and how divorced they are from reality.

The 'Irish backstop' sums this up. One of the greatest benefits of common EU membership for Britain and Ireland since 1973 is that it made possible an invisible border within Ireland. The two things that borders mostly do, which is to stop smuggling and stop people crossing, weren't necessary since there was now a single customs and trade regime and a right for people to move freely.

Having decided to leave the EU, but wanting to maintain these benefits, May willingly agreed the 'backstop' arrangement, under which Northern Ireland in effect remains in the European customs union and single market in perpetuity. May knew that to do otherwise would subvert the Good Friday peace agreement with its invisible border.

So when May now says, at Dunkirk, that she wants salvation from the backstop, she doesn't really mean this. What she wants is for the EU to pretend that the backstop isn't there in return for her guaranteeing that she will do what it says anyway.

The trouble is, the Irish government rightly says: what if Rees-Mogg and your extremists, who genuinely want to end the customs union and single market in Ireland, were to try to do this? And since May is anyway at sixes and sevens about how she will actually maintain an open Irish border without new border controls down the Irish Sea, how will Britain make its own declared policy work in practice unless the backstop requires it to do what it says?

So the EU isn't going to change the backstop and nor does May really want it to do so. After all, she negotiated it and declared it a triumph at the time.

The real inspiration for the Brexit endgame isn't Dunkirk but Alice in Wonderland. As the White Queen says: 'Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'.

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