Published:  12:45 AM, 06 December 2017

May leads UK towards Declaration of Dependence

May leads UK towards Declaration of Dependence

The American Declaration of Independence begins thus: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another... a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

 The American colonies duly did so. Because they knew what they wanted and meant what they said, they won their independence. On June 23, 2016, the British people voted to declare independence from the European Union. More of them (17.4 million) voted to do this than for any other cause or party in our history. We cannot know exactly why each person voted Leave, but it seems reasonable to think that the key idea was expressed in the referendum slogan "Take back control".

The British situation was strange, however, because the government charged with implementing Brexit was led by people who had voted Remain. Even when Theresa May replaced David Cameron, this remained the case. Even after the general election, at which both the main political parties promised that they would take Britain out of the EU, this is still true. So May and most of her colleagues have great difficulty in "declaring the causes which impel them to separation". I do not accuse her of lacking "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind". The problem is more that she and her government do not really know what they want.

This has bedeviled the entire course of the negotiations, and it explains the way they are going. When May made her speech in Florence on September 22, we were briefed that Britain would pay approximately £20 billion (Dh98.9 billion) to discharge its obligations to the European Union. Seven weeks later, we are told that the sum has more than doubled to something between £40 billion and £50 billion.

If you average it out between then and now, our government has been conceding an extra £3 billion a week. As a result, it seems likely that the European Commission will shortly tell us, as if writing the school report of a sluggish pupil, that we have at last made "sufficient progress". The next stage of the talks will be allowed to begin.

What have we promised to give away? (I leave the question of the Northern Irish border in suspension, since nobody seems clear what on earth is happening.) First, we are giving away a sum considerably larger than our annual defence budget. Second, our freedom to leave unconditionally and without further payment on March 29, 2019 ("transition"), and our ability in the twilight period when we have left, yet not left, to affect any new legislation the EU may impose on us. And third, the supremacy of our courts which we thought - and May subsequently said - we had voted to restore.

At present, the European Court of Justice is the ultimate arbiter of the rights of the EU citizens in our country. Apparently, our government is now ready to allow this to continue beyond the foreseeable future. For example, the ECJ has declared that EU citizens living in Britain are not bound by the British law which insists that you can bring your foreign spouse here from outside the EU only if you have the means to support her/him. In other words, it has given greater rights to foreigners than we have ourselves and forced us to implement those rights. This ECJ authority, private briefing suggests, will now continue.

A foreign court in which we have no part will decide our law. It's a funny way to "take back control". What are we getting in return? Certainly no concession about future trade, no sympathy for the "imaginative" trade approach we have called for. The process set by Michel Barnier and meekly accepted by our negotiators has always been deliberately unimaginative. "Sufficient progress" means sufficient to start on trade, not to accept any British views on the subject.

Indeed, we know, because M Barnier has recently said so, that the EU will insist on Britain retaining the "European model" of regulation if it wants a trade deal. His essential position is that we must not reap any advantage from leaving: all we jettison is rights - a judge at the ECJ, a place among the Council of Ministers, representation in the European Parliament. What we keep is the rules and obligations. Often these are better described in the phrase the American Declaration of Independence used against George III - "repeated injuries and usurpations".

In short, what May has gained since Florence is simply, after paying a very high price, the right to more talks. Because she and her government have little vision of where they want to go, they are defaulting to the position beloved of diplomats throughout our membership - that what matters most is a seat at the table, rather than anything we win by sitting there. As we sit, every tick of Barnier's famous clock puts more power in the EU's hands.

If "sufficient progress" is announced, everything will be presented cheerfully. The media will be given background stories about how David Davis or May "played a blinder". As so often with agreements which cause trouble later - Chamberlain at Munich, Margaret Thatcher approving the Single European Act, John Major at Maastricht - the headlines will be good. It may even be true that the commission, sensing that May could not concede more without losing office, has decided to be kinder to her now than it was in September.

After all, it does not want it said that it refused a deal. But the entire logic which forced David Cameron to concede the referendum and persuaded the British people to vote to leave is gradually being nullified.The purpose of our EU membership was to converge. We decided to diverge. Now we are not being allowed to.

Our government is ruled by fear, and clings to its jailer even though the prison doors are open. How different May's narrative could be. National independence is a language of possibility. She could seize on last week's dramatic drop in the net migration figures from the EU to suggest the benefits of controlling our own borders. She could state that our offer of so much money is strictly tied to a reciprocal no-tariff trade deal. She could announce that, with time so short, we shall prepare fully for the possibility (actually the likelihood) that the EU will not agree to any special, bespoke agreement for Britain, and therefore get ready to trade on WTO terms. Instead she is almost making a Declaration of Dependence.

Why does she think this is good politics? Presumably because her parliamentary sums show that most of her party colleagues will not vote against her. I wonder, though, if she is thinking enough about the Labour Party. So far, Jeremy Corbyn has let the Remainer Keir Starmer run his party's European business in Parliament, but what will his supporters think if he backs a prime minister offering to pour billions more into the EU instead of getting out and spending it on public services? The Leave vote was, among other things, a cry for leadership which reached out beyond the elites to the many. There was a time when May's Conservatives seemed to be answering that cry. Now that leadership is being vacated.


The writer is a British columnist

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