Britain’s treaty with Europe is dead. Time to strike a new one

The dangers to our continent eclipse even Brexit. We’re leaving the EU but will need a new forum for cooperation – perhaps the Treaty of London

Notice of Britain’s intended departure from the European Union this week was symbolic. The letter went to Brussels by snail mail. Whatever Brexiters might say, Britons are leaving hesitant, nervous and divided. As before in history, they are turning their backs on another grandiose attempt to meld Europe into a single political space. In the past, they have defied such attempts by waging war. This time, mercifully, a referendum was enough. But an affair is over. Europe’s political geography has changed.

For Theresa May the forthcoming months have at least a coherent trajectory. She signed her letter of withdrawal beneath a portrait of the Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, who built his reputation on firmly rejecting the European entanglements of his predecessors. “Not an Englishman dead in Europe this year,” he would boast. But May still has to realise Walpole’s legacy of peace and prosperity. She has to engineer a new relationship with Europe, with the handicap of a political and executive machine largely hostile to the exercise.

Above all, May has to judge the shifting temper of a nation still fiercely divided. The remainers abused the leavers as racist fundamentalists. The leavers called the remainers out-of-touch and arrogant metropolitans. May’s rhetoric has so far pandered, perhaps tactically, to the latter. She has sided with the swashbuckling cavaliers of hard Brexit and their quest for the “open seas and skies” of world trade.

This is magnificent, but it is not today’s war. Now is the moment for roundhead sobriety. The overwhelming weight of political and economic opinion – and seemingly of public opinion – wants to retain open trade with Europe. Britons believe in the free movement of goods, services and, within reason, of people. But they want sovereign control of that freedom.

They might accept the need for compromise, but have said they will not delegate to a superior authority the power to decide that compromise. Hence May’s clear rejection in her letter of the single market and its “four freedoms”, including that of migration.

In taking back control while still pleading for a comprehensive “free trade agreement”, May is clearly putting her negotiators in the role of supplicants. During the referendum, I thought the economic case against Brexit was exaggerated, and that “walking away” was an option. Trade would somehow continue, if only because trade always does. Trucks would move, students would study, tourists would travel.

Certainly anything is possible, but so is chaos. Without any agreement, the euphoria that has enveloped British trade, and more importantly finance, in the aftermath of Brexit would surely evaporate. Business hates uncertainty. It craves a deal. That is why there is now imperative pressure for an early agreement on EU residents, migrant workers and financial passporting. We are beyond the megaphones, the threats and the silliness of “win, win”.

The Brexiters have long argued that the rest of Europe will have a trade interest in easing Britain’s deal. Perhaps, but trade is not everything in statecraft, and Europe’s democracies are currently in delicate mode. Diplomacy’s default position is always to stall. That is why the price of Brexit will be high, and why May’s negotiators must apply Occam’s razor, paring difficulties to a minimum and building on areas of agreement. The next two years will be farcical if, week after week, they must face parliament with a score sheet of the reported “700 areas in contention”.

For all this noise, none of it reflects the real danger facing Europe. If Brexit gave the British government a headache, it should have given the rest of the continent a nightmare. Hardly a European leader dares ask his or her voters the question that was asked, and answered, in Britain. Most know that when support for one group of politicians vanishes, it can switch to others. Those others are not “populist” – the latest buzzword of intellectual abuse – they are just popular.

The EU was always mis-sold as a superstate, of the sort that has beguiled Europe’s ruling classes since the middle ages. In reality it is a flatulent, dysfunctional treaty organisation. The EU27 is like the Field of the Cloth of Gold, roaming Europe’s historic capitals in virtually perpetual session. It has proved no match for such monumental challenges as Greek indebtedness, Mediterranean migration or Russian revanchism. It is out of its depth.

Yet the EU has been the framework that for half a century has held the balance between the conflicting interests of Europe’s nationalities. It is that balance, quite distinct from any superstate, that has traditionally underpinned the political stability of the continent and which, when upset, has so often presaged disaster. Such disaster may no longer be military, but at present it threatens to be economic.

This is why I voted to remain. I was idealistic enough to believe Britain and Germany, in alliance, offered the best hope of cleaning up the inert bureaucracy and corruption that is modern Brussels. A lifetime Eurosceptic, I was never a leaver – though I was shocked at the appeasement of the EU’s outrages by “pro-Europeans”. Last June, I almost switched to advocating leave, if only to highlight how dangerous was the EU’s ossification in the hope of jolting it into reality. But as a German friend pleaded with me before the vote, “For God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t leave just us in charge. We don’t trust ourselves.”

Now Brexit has done just that. It has unbalanced Europe. The challenge must be to minimise the damage, to see Brexit as irrelevant to the continent’s deeper predicament. For Britain to secure a trade deal with the EU should be a minor and soluble task. Other non-EU states have one. British diplomacy should make amends by looking elsewhere. It should exploit May’s reiterated plea in her letter for a “special partnership to advance and protect our shared liberal and democratic values”.

The dangers massing along Europe’s borders are obvious. Unless May’s words are empty, the continent clearly needs some new treaty or other conclave that embraces Britain, to replace the failed detritus of Rome, Maastricht and Lisbon. The least May can do is launch with Germany a new forum for European cooperation to which all its nations could subscribe. Let the next treaty be the Treaty of London.

Labour Leave will campaign to achieve a fair deal from Brexit negotiations. We recognise the will of the UK public and will hold the government and the Labour Party to account.

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