Increasingly desperate Brexiteers have resorted recently to accusing the EU of breaking its own treaties by not accommodating the UKâ€™s demands, on the basis that those treaties require the EU to “develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourlinessâ€�, and some have even suggested that failure to do this leaves the UK open to follow Trumpâ€™s advice to the Prime Minister and sue the EU. Leaving aside the irony of the PM trying to use an institution which she has said the UK wants to have nothing to do with (the European Court of Justice), to say nothing of the question as to whether taking legal action would help or hinder the negotiation of any agreement, there is an even more fundamental problem with the idea. In effect, the UK would be trying to sue someone else for the consequences of its own actions, and it doesnâ€™t take much of a legal brain to come to a conclusion about the likely prospects for success in that endeavour.
Itâ€™s true, of course, that the EU does have a treaty obligation to be a good neighbour, but demanding that the EU gives in to each and every demand from the awkward and obstreperous bloke next door is going well beyond neighbourliness. Helping someone out is one thing; doing whatever he says is quite another. The UKâ€™s stance at the moment isnâ€™t so much asking for a helping hand as refusing to step into the lifeboat unless the captain and crew first agree to repaint the boat, replace the engine, and change direction; and itâ€™s backed up with the threat that if the captain doesnâ€™t agree it will drown itself and blame the lifeboat crew. The UK isnâ€™t asking for neighbourliness, itâ€™s asking for submission.
The Brexiteers donâ€™t see things that way, naturally. They portray the UK as a victim being punished by those horrid Europeans for daring to want to leave, and they start with a belief that the UK has an entitlement to unique treatment, because â€“ well, because itâ€™s the UK and is therefore special. The idea that the UK is just another third-party state on the fringes of Europe (which is the logical outcome of Brexit) and can be treated with the same degree of good neighbourliness as other states such as Norway is anathema to them. It doesnâ€™t fit their world view. The Anglo-British nationalists driving the Brexit project are stuck in a view of the UK and its place in the world which pre-dates the second world war, and probably the first as well. Itâ€™s a world of empires and dominance, where others are there to be divided and ruled; a world in which the English language is pre-eminent and those countries which use that language form a natural set of trading partners for what they still fondly see as the mother country. It’s a world in which others may be our neighbours, but we are never mere neighbours to anyone.
Itâ€™s also a world which disappeared more than half a century ago; they just canâ€™t see it.