From Friday’s News Letter (Belfast):
It is a well worn analogy that if people want high public spending and low taxes – but they cannot have both. So it is with the UK Government’s “plan” for leaving the European Union – it wants both free trade and absolute border control, but it cannot have both. Regardless of last week’s vote in the Commons and the ongoing proceedings in the UK Supreme Court, we do not know which it will prioritise (indeed, the evidence is that the Cabinet is firmly split on it).
Of course, the real issue here is that it does not matter. All this talk about the UK “not showing its hand” is nonsense, because the truth is it has already shown its hand. That is why the UK Government will have no influence on the terms of “Brexit” once it triggers Article 50 – and is why it is foolish to be in such a rush to do so on a timescale dictated by the tabloids.
The UK Government’s “hand” is that it will leave the EU come what may. That being the case, it has no negotiating position. What will happen now is the European Council (in other words a collective of the remaining 27 EU Heads of Government) will determine the terms. The UK will be in no position to reject any of them, because it has already decided it has to leave regardless. This is the most monumental act of folly the UK Government has embarked upon since Suez – then, as now, it has taken no account of the global position.
The notion that the EU will not be too hard on the UK because of its economic trading interests is also so flawed as to be dangerous. The UK’s own economic interest is clearly to remain in the EU (the decline of its currency alone since the referendum is just one obvious piece of evidence for this); but it has chosen not to do so. Likewise, whether it is in the EU’s economic interest to offer the UK favourable terms is irrelevant; it is plainly in the EU’s political interests to offer deeply unfavourable terms. This may cause it marginal economic damage to the EU (though nothing like as much as it will to the UK, as the rest of the EU accounts for a much larger share of UK trade than vice-versa), but it will see off the prospect of any other country considering departure.
A much more sensible strategy after the referendum would have been to use the result to pursue a much less political union, and to pursue much greater repatriation of powers up to and including greater oversight of labour mobility. Had the UK elected this route, it would have found itself with allies among the remaining 27 member states, while still absolutely respecting the result and the motivation behind the overall “Leave” majority. That would have been a much more effective way of not “showing its hand” ahead of negotiating a new relationship, probably formally outside the Union, from 2020 or so.
However, the UK has adopted a ridiculous strategy, showing the only card it had before it even had to play it. It will not be a “Red, White and Blue Brexit”, it will be a “Take it or Leave it Brexit”, dictated from Brussels not London. That both the Government and the Opposition cannot see the madness in this is the clearest sign that we should probably be glad this crazy year is almost over.