I suppose there are such things as amicable divorces. Mine wasn’t. Like the First World War, it was fought for more than four years, and ended with the Treaty of Versailles (by which I mean that it imposed territorial losses and the payment of annual reparations for a very long time).
Which brings me to Brexit, the ultimate divorce. Leave aside the arguments based on economics. Leave aside history, too. Instead, permit me to get personal. You want to get a divorce from Europe? Very well, let me explain what divorce is like.
Now, I get how you feel. You’ve reached the point when you just can’t stand the EU any more. You can’t stand the nagging (regulation). You can’t stand the way the EU keeps inviting her friends round (immigration). You can’t stand the way she takes your money (that net contribution). So enough is enough. You want out.
At this stage, most people contemplating divorce are motivated by two things. First, they see only their spouse’s defects. Secondly, they fantasize about an idealized alternative future. Often, though not always, this involves a magically perfect new partner. But the most important motivation is the dream of freedom. No more nagging! No more unwelcome guests! All that money saved!
This is the Brexit state of mind. To the committed Leave voter, the European Union has no virtues, only vices. For some Brexiteers there is also an adorable, in-every-way-perfect girlfriend called ‘the Anglosphere,’ a combination of all that is cute about Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
But, let’s face it, most Brexiteers are a bit long in the tooth for a new partner, even if such a new partner existed. For them it is enough to contemplate freedom. Independence. Good old English liberty. Shut your eyes and ask yourself what image those words conjure up. Could it possibly be that yacht you’ve always dreamt of? Is that how you picture yourself, blithely sailing off into the sunset?
Fine. I get it. But please – before you call the lawyer – do not let anyone kid you that this is going to be easy. Or cheap. Or quick. Or amicable. Claims that Brexit will be all of these things are made on a daily basis. Let me disabuse you.
In phase two, after you have told your spouse you want out, the standard response is: ‘Please don’t, darling … but if you do, you bastard, I’ll make sure you regret it for the rest of your life.’
This is essentially the position of the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Herr Schäuble is not one for displays of emotion. Having been confined to a wheelchair since an assassination attempt in 1990, he seldom permits himself more than a wintry half-smile. Yet last week he provided Der Spiegel magazine with an unlikely cover story: an appeal to Britons not to vote Leave on Thursday. ‘Please don’t go!’ was the headline.
But a more accurate headline would have been ‘Please don’t go … or else.’ Schäuble’s warning was a stark one: Britain does not have the option to vote for Brexit and at the same time to remain inside the single market – the so-called Norwegian option. ‘In is in, and out is out,’ Schäuble told Der Spiegel.
In view of the Leave campaign’s repeated claims that Brexit would allow the UK to ‘take control’ of immigration and regulation, Schäuble’s position is logical. Continued membership of the European Economic Area would require Britain, like Norway, still to accept the free movement of EU citizens, as well to pay into the EU budget and to apply nearly all EU regulations. But these are precisely the things that the Leave campaign wants to get rid of.
Unlike a scorned soon-to-be-ex-wife, Schäuble’s motive is not to make Britain suffer for the sake of revenge. His main motive is not even to help David Cameron avert Brexit. Schäuble wants to deter others – he specifically mentioned the Dutch – from contemplating a similar referendum (anyone for Duxit?). And with good reason. A Pew poll published a couple of weeks ago revealed that Britons do not in fact have the most negative view of Brussels. Whereas the EU gets a ‘favourable’ rating from 44 per cent of British voters, for France the share is 38 per cent. For Greece the figure is 27 per cent. And before you confidently assure me that Schäuble is bluffing, remember that the last people who thought that before a referendum were… the Greeks.
So you are voting for a divorce, my pro-Brexit friends. And, like most divorces, it’s going to take much longer than you think and cost much more. That nice yacht you were daydreaming about? Sorry, your money is going on alimony and lawyers’ bills, just as the money Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised to spend on the NHS and cuts in VAT will be swallowed up by the post-Brexit recession and negotiation nightmare.
Yet this is not just about time and money. For divorce has other unintended consequences. Yes, you’re fixated on all that is wrong with your spouse. But other people are inevitably involved in any divorce: children mainly, but also parents, siblings and friends. It’s the same with this referendum. If England votes Leave but Scotland votes Remain, you surely know happens next – to say nothing of Northern Ireland and Wales. I have friends whose kids didn’t speak to them for years after their divorce. A decree nisi can turn your family into Yugoslavia. How amicable would the breakup of Britain be?
‘The reason divorce is so expensive,’ a twice-married American once said to me, ‘is because it’s really worth it.’ Well, maybe. Maybe England really will be happier without the EU, not forgetting the UK. But how many divorcees have a clue at the outset what divorce will cost them in time, money and heartache?
The lesson I have learned in the nearly eight years since I and my first wife separated is that divorce is one of the toughest things you can do in peacetime. And the one thing you can never divorce are the problems that turn out to be all your own – the inner demons that you wrongly blamed on your ex.
Today there are a great many Brexiteers who would love to pin all the UK’s problems on the EU. Trust me: most of those problems will still be there after Brexit, along with a heap of nasty new ones. And you’ll have no one left to blame but yourself.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a columnist for the Sunday Times.