The leaks that have emerged from EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker since his dinner with Theresa May at Downing Street last weekconfirm what any realistic observer has known since last June. Juncker & Co are afraid. Very afraid.
I can agree with the president that Theresa May inhabits a different galaxy, but he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope; it is she who is firmly grounded in the mortal world of realpolitik, while the EU leadership at every level lives in an ethereal cosmos of inert gases disappearing up its own black hole.
First, ask any seasoned negotiator about how best to conduct the process of finding a mutually desirable agreement, and they will tell you that, when you walk in to the meeting, you need to know what would make you give up on the talks and walk out again. Theresa May has already worked that out and it scares Juncker and his chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Second, if the negotiations are in the public eye, then it is often the case that you will be speaking to a number of audiences with different priorities. At home, the British people will be concerned about democratic accountability for what they voted for and the economic prospects that can be secured. Internationally, our friends and rivals will be looking to secure new partnerships or exploit weaknesses.
And while across the table our former EU colleagues will fear losing face, they will also be aware of two huge risks – precipitating by their own intransigence the collapse of the European Project and delivering unemployment to thousands of Europeans whose jobs depend on a harmonious outcome.
It is to address these competing interests that May made it plain in her Lancaster House speech what her main objectives are and that she is prepared to walk away if she does not get them. Unlike the EU, which is still mired in the unproductive language of “punishment”, the Prime Minister has therefore defined in general terms what a bad deal is and it is now the detail and the process (such as the timeline) that she wants to be worked out.
A bad deal would mean failing to secure control of our borders so that economic migration is determined by the skills on offer rather than what country a person comes from. A bad deal would mean leaving EU institutions to control any of our taxes, regulations and laws rather than ensuring our politicians are accountable for them again. And a bad deal would involve facing a continuing bar bill for drinks we never ordered or the stale croissant we will never eat.
When we leave the club, we should not continue to pay a membership fee, or the pensions of staff that are no longer our responsibility, but we can of course pay the green fees as a guest when we choose to access Erasmus or other such facilities.
Leaving without a deal does not unduly worry me for I have confidence in Britain’s prospects for increasing trade in growing markets rather than relying on the stagnating Eurozone.
The people that are worried about “no deal” are the Spanish fishermen who can kiss goodbye to any agreed access to our fishing waters; it is the German car manufacturers who could see themselves priced out of their lucrative market; and it is the French food and drink producers who know only too well we can turn instead to the New World and developing nations in a heartbeat.
Even when it comes to both parties facing a so-called cliff edge without a deal, we have the advantage of a parachute, while the EU does not. We will be free to strike our own advantageous free trade agreements with countries like India – preparing many in advance and grandfathering existing ones, such as the one with South Korea. The EU economy will be stuck behind its protectionist walls, too compromised by having to manage the competing interests of 27 member states to nimbly secure new agreements of its own.
Yes British businesses will have to face some tariffs, but with sterling down since the referendum, these are of less significance than opponents suggest. We should also remember that under WTO rules, the EU cannot single out the UK for unusually punitive tariffs – they must be the same as they are for the US, China and Japan.
Of course no deal will be called a hard Brexit, or even an extreme Brexit, but it would result in Britain operating in a way no different to most other Western countries in terms of control of economic, political and social affairs. And ironically, because a hard Brexit would result in a hard border between England and an independent Scotland, it actually makes Scottish independence less likely than a soft Brexit.
No deal is not in the wrong galaxy. If it comes to it, why have cotton when you can have silk?