The pro-Brexit Daily Express got itself quite excited yesterday about the apparent hint from Michel Barnier of a super-duper extra-special Brexit deal for the UK the like of which has never been seen before. It seems however that they have just not been paying attention â€“ as the Guardian reported, this is nothing new, heâ€™s been saying the same thing all along. The EU27 have been keen from the outset to maintain strong links with the UK and have always been willing to negotiate a bespoke deal. What they have not been willing to do, however, is to change the single market rules to suit a departing member; the obstacle to that super-duper deal isnâ€™t in Brussels, itâ€™s in London.
That fact was underlined by the attempt by David Lidington, effectively the deputy to the Prime Minister, to issue an ultimatum to the EU27 â€“ agree to what we want or we walk. Ultimatums have never been a particularly brilliant way of negotiating anything, and when theyâ€™re being issued by the weaker party to the stronger, and when following through on them damages the weaker party more than the stronger, then the stronger party can surely be excused for scratching its collective head and saying â€˜OK, go on thenâ€™. The â€˜ultimatumâ€™ amounts to a demand that the EU27 not only give the UK all its current benefits, but also start dismantling key aspects of the single market in order to do so.
Thatâ€™s something to which they were never and are never going to agree; a deal is on the table any time the UK is prepared to drop its red lines. Whether that is â€˜properâ€™ Brexit or not is another question, but it would at least buy enough time for the UK to decide what it really wants (and offer an easy way back in if sanity is ever restored). But the underlying reality â€“ that it is the UK which has made the decision to leave, and it is the UK which must bear the consequences of that â€“ was neatly summed up by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, when he said that Brexit â€œâ€¦is what the British people have chosen for themselves, not for others â€¦â€�. That encapsulates the problem at the heart of the Anglo-British nationalism driving the Brexit project â€“ the belief that a vote by the UK electorate not only binds the UK government, but also somehow mandates the rest of the EU to comply with whatever the UK wants. The old-style imperialists still don’t understand the modern world. Ultimatums, like gunboats, belong to the diplomacy of the past, not the present.