As the sort of treacherous, Britain-hating invertebrate who betrayed his Queen and country by voting Remain and still doesn’t believe leaving the EU will make us happier or richer, I should welcome Theresa May’s Florence speech. It is, after all, confirmation that the British Government has – far, far later than it should have done – accepted political, diplomatic and economic reality.
Remember, not too long ago we were being told that Britain would pay nothing to the EU after March 2019, that there would be a complete end to ECJ jurisdiction, that ‘no deal’ was nothing to fear and that those semi-mythical German carmakers would force the EU to give us a favourable trade deal, pronto. That’s all gone now, at least among members of the reality-based community. But I still can’t quite bring myself to open my (French, obviously; I hate Britain) champagne today over the formal UK pitch for a transition with financial contributions. Pourquoi pas?
Because while a transition is sensible and prudent, it’s not a solution. It’s necessary but not sufficient. It solves nothing and could simply delay the fundamental risks of the Brexit process going wrong. To be clear, there remains a long, long way to go and even with another two years on the clock, no one sensible is putting much money on a full EU-UK trade deal being struck in time. Transition doesn’t take away the risk of a hard Brexit or an accidental and catastrophic no-deal conclusion. It just defers them for a bit. And maybe it might just make them more likely.
Indeed, I can see an outcome where transition makes it harder for the UK to reach a final, sensible deal with the EU by triggering a Leaver backlash that puts Mrs May (or whoever is in her seat) under irresistible pressure to resist pragmatic compromise. Because let’s face it: this speech and the things it offer are a compromise, a concession. Mrs May is giving up things that many voters we told Britain would not have to give up. Some of them won’t like it.
And to be clear, that can’t be ignored. I may be a Remain-voting traitor, but I don’t think Brexit must be stopped. I think Britain voted to leave so Britain must leave; the political consequences of telling the 52 per cent that their views don’t count are just horrible, something the Stop Brexit camp really should think about more. So Mrs May remains in the Brexit vice, squeezed between the reality of the British-EU relations on one side and UK public and political opinion on the other.
Is there a way out? Maybe, but it’ll entail a serious campaign of domestic persuasion, a strong and sustained effort to explain to Leave voters why Brexit isn’t, in their terms, going to mean Brexit for another couple of years. And that when it does, that Britain’s best interests will be best served by remaining, to some extent, entangled with the EU, sharing sovereignty just as we do with dozens of other international partners and organisations. And given that several members of the Cabinet remain unwilling to accept such difficult truths (not to mention parts of the British media), what hope that the wider electorate will do so?
In other words, this speech is just the beginning, the first step on a long, difficult journey to a destination where the harms of Brexit are minimised. And there is absolutely no guarantee that Britain’s prime minister, political class or electorate are able and willing to make that journey.