The author of this article is Michael Woolgar.
(This article was first published in ‘Briefings for Brexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission)
Brexit is a catalyst for accelerating the discussion of reform of the EU. Britain should seize the opportunity urgently to become the creative leader for the reform ambitions of numerous member states and should set up a project group to work with sympathetic circles in France to develop a version of the Europe des Nations in which each nation is its highest legitimate authority.
Rivalry between Britain and France is an historical constant. After Britain (with Prussian help) terminated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions at Waterloo, France failed to build a world-scale empire and to match Britain’s internationally successful industry and commerce. At the end of the 19th century, our leading classes became enthused for French culture and lifestyle. The entente cordiale at the beginning of the 20th century set the two countries on a sympathetic course.
Thus, in the First World War, Britain and France joined together to defeat the Kaiser’s ambitions. After the disaster of Dunkirk, General de Gaulle worked with Britain and America to bring a successful end to the Second World War. However, the joint Franco-British Suez Canal invasion of 1956 turned out to be a political disaster which soured relations thereafter.
There is ultimately an existential difference between the British constitutional monarchy, its unwritten constitution, its unfettered parliamentary sovereignty, and the French structured republican constitution based on the Roman/Napoleonic legal tradition.
This fundamental difference also stems from the historical predisposition in Britain (with some recidivism, the latest example of which is Mrs May) for liberal free trade against the French preference for a quasi-protected domestic economy. These two orientations are not reconcilable inside an ever-closer politico-economic arrangement of the European Union.
Britain’s recovery from the Second World War was initially less dramatic than in France which, for some years, made a more significant recovery from a considerably lower starting point after their defeat in the war. Labour was redeployed in France from agriculture to more productive industry – a process that had been largely completed a century earlier in Britain. The perception among British politicians and the permanent civil service was that we were in decline and that a close association with Europe’s faster growth countries was necessary to improve the economy.
This sense of decline resulted in Harold Macmillan’s attempt to join the European Economic Community. By then, General de Gaulle was back as head of France. He rejected this overture, not wanting a rival on the continent and rightly recognising that, historically, Britain’s orientation to le grand large made us an unsuitable companion for the new Europe which he was helping to construct.
Following de Gaulle’s death, Britain’s overtures to the EEC were successful and we joined the common market after the 1975 referendum. But it was only after the Thatcher reforms that the British economy was energetically revitalised.
Britain was an increasingly uncomfortable member of the European Community when, inevitably and as explicitly designed, it evolved beyond a trading bloc. After some 40 years of membership, scepticism in Britain was growing. Nigel Farage’s UKIP successfully mobilised this scepticism. This led David Cameron to offer the country an unconditional In or Out referendum on membership of the European Union. Cameron was confident that he could offset UKIP and a vast apparatus of persuasion was set up to ensure a vote for continued membership.
Neither during the referendum campaign nor during the post-Article 50 Brexit process has a case for EU membership been articulated by government or the Remainer classes. Propaganda by the government in 2016 focused uniquely on the supposed disadvantages of leaving the European community. This was expressed in terms of potential immediate losses to the economy, collapse of exports to the EU, very high unemployment and economic recession. It was popularly and appropriately called Project Fear. These forecasts did not materialise after the referendum vote. The same propaganda has been resurrected during the post-Article 50 period.
Michel Barnier put ‘des centaines de dossiers’ on the negotiating table in Brussels. David Davis as the first Minister for Exiting the EU worked with a modest staff. He was soon rendered totally ineffective by Mrs May who, duplicitously, had set her small group of chosen civil servants, notably under Gavin Barwell and Olly Robbins along with their Special Advisors. They worked on different lines and took over the negotiations with the Commission. David Davis resigned and Dominic Raab as replacement found himself in the same straitjacket. The DExEU ministerial role has been a fiction.
As negotiations began, the Commission must have been astonished …:
- by the inability of Britain to challenge even the basic sequencing of the negotiations viz exit fee before trade talks
- by the hostility of the Mrs May team and of Parliament to a Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms
- by the readiness of the Barwell-Robbins team to cede anything necessary to continue as far as possible, after Brexit, with the ex-ante EU-UK relationships.
This situation gave the Barnier team a self-evident double objective:
- to demonstrate that no member country could leave the Union without great financial cost and difficulty
- to ensure that the evolving Withdrawal Agreement would separate the post-Brexit UK as far as possible from its well-recognised competitive advantages in personal and corporate taxation, in entrepreneurial spirit, in flexible labour laws, in support to business from its sound and stress-tested banking system, in its role as a base for international companies to establish businesses in a profitable market which is also a springboard for tariff-free exports to the EU.
The numerical dominance of the Remainers in cabinet, in Parliament and in the administration ensured that negotiation with the EU would be ineffective.
Contingency planning for Brexit under WTO trading rules was parsimoniously funded and has been vigorously opposed by the Parliament, the media and the large company members of the CBI. These latter benefit from EU regulations and the Common External Tariffs of the Union (e.g. beverages and tobacco at 19.6%, vehicles at 10%, clothing at 11.5%).
The British negotiating team and the Remainer-dominated establishment elites in Britain never grasped, or are indifferent to, the most important element for France of Michel Barnier’s Withdrawal Agreement. This part is revolutionary: the Agreement is structured to ensure that France, as putative co-leader of the European Union with Germany, will be given a permanent advantage against Britain in trade, tariffs, financial contributions to the EU budget, regulatory convergence and submission of the UK legal system to the European Court of Justice. This might even be called the revanche for Waterloo.