Commentary by Derek Bateman
I imagine the Leader sweeping into the room, mouth in a tight smile, eyes glinting within intent. She is flanked by officials, carefully fanning out abreast and a step or two behind. ‘M. Barnier. I am here to present the case for leaving the EU on behalf of Britain.’
‘On behalf of Britain, perhaps, Prime Minister. But not surely the case on behalf of the United Kingdom. The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain and have since endorsed that position by returning a majority of pro-EU politicians in the Stormont elections. The people of Scotland also voted to remain and now their government is awaiting your reply to their request for an independence vote in order to assume your place in the European Union. You represent the case of the English people only…and of course the Welsh.’
‘Nevertheless, I speak for my country. I will not tolerate any divide and rule tactics.’
‘But surely division is exactly what your policy amounts to…dividing Europe. And the legacy of history demands that you also address the interests of the Irish people whose peace and prosperity have been anchored by the EU treaties. I must warn you that all of us on this side have very much the interests of all those wishing to retain European citizenship at heart and in mind.’
If Nicola Sturgeon does announce a referendum plan (without date) before the end of March, the unity of the British government position on Brexit will be further undermined. Division within Theresa May’s ‘own country’ vocalised into outright doubt about her strategy, will be a seriously debilitating handicap in the EU talks.
Such a huge undertaking, while inevitably splitting opinion, really needs some mutual accommodation before a united front can confidently be presented. It would be the same if the EU negotiators arrived at the table with a handful of dissenting countries proclaiming their resistance to the EU’s terms. The British problem is that there is no healing, no resolution among the constituent parts of the kingdom. Nicola Sturgeon’s acceptance of the British vote is (was) dependent on a separate arrangement for Scotland which is not forthcoming. Now we find that the lifeline from political and economic blight still afflicting parts of Northern Ireland that European membership represents is a powerful magnet for voters. The relative decline of Unionism in the North is a stinging reminder to a British nationalist Prime Minister that her country is far from united.
This hands leverage to the Brussels deal-makers who can ask at every stage how arrangements will go down in the unsettled parts of the country in the knowledge that most of it will be rejected. It allows too for mischief-making. How does the May team respond if, out of the blue, Brussels suggests a bespoke deal for Ulster and Scotland?
Worse, the British team will know they don’t speak for the whole country and their efforts are likely to be dogged by protest and demonstration at home.
The Chancellor’s diversion of funds away from public services into a Brexit fund is the clearest sign that sabre rattling has already caused wobbles at Westminster. The very public demands for reparations of up to £60bn as the cost of leaving – and quite possibly the price of any progress in the talks at all – has forced the government to concede the point without the talks even starting or Article 50 being triggered. (Remember how £350m would go to the NHS each week?)
There will be no hiding the decisions made as the talks proceed – the 27 will see to that – and the full reality of Brexit will be slowly revealed to the British public. Across the North of England, heartland of Leave voters, opinion has already moved, in some cases dramatically with some polls finding 60 per cent of Leavers now reverting to 60 per cent Remainers.
The scandals of EU nationals being forced to leave and the impact on public services will gather pace at the same time as shop prices, including food, rise noticeably. A fall in net migration is likely but at a cost of lost business and higher prices. Meanwhile the racists will realise that immigration from the rest of the world, notably the Commonwealth, continues.
If May’s intransigence and arrogance thus far are carried over into the negotiations, they could go very badly indeed. Needling the Commission with threats ignores the sheer scope for retaliation that could be forthcoming. Noises off in Brussels could include clear indications that a seamless establishment of Scotland as successor nation was under active consideration. Even – imagine – a joint Scotland-Ulster membership which recognises both in a curtailed Union and removes the need for a border with the Republic.
Instead of Global Britain, we might soon see Little Britain, shorn of all that makes it united, and the decline of the UK as a European nation.