Not Whether, But How

Here are a few of the responses I observed from Remain-minded individuals, reacting on Twitter to the parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s Article 50 bill.

This is Guardian reporter, Ian Birrell:

“Why respect people betraying their principles & voting for something they know is damaging for their country?”

Nick Cohen, columnist for The Observer and The Spectator:

“We have just seen hundreds of MP’s ‘restore trust in politics’ by voting for a measure they know to be against the national interest.”

Robert Harris, author:

“It is staggering, when you think about it, that the Tories, who took us into Europe, could muster only ONE MP to vote against leaving.”

What can one say when confronted with this level of wilful self-delusion? Europe is not the EU. I will keep saying that because it is true and because anybody who attempts to muddy the water on that particular issue is either being manipulative or is so stupid as to warrant no further attention. Many of the people who refer to the EU as Europe are both.

These are not knowledgeable people. These are people who have not troubled to learn anything new since the vote. Their arguments, if one can call them that, are stuck in the past, wishing after a referendum outcome that the British people declined to deliver.

Not to say that the legacy Leavers have covered themselves in glory. The usual ya-boo histrionics from Theresa May—thumping the despatch box and declaring, “He’s leading a protest, I’m leading a country”—do not disguise the fact that the Tory Party is woefully out of its depth. The moderate expectation that the government should be able to answer questions about legitimate issues is greeted with howls of outrage from people who, like their Remainer counterparts, are not minded to move forward.

The air of unreality that permeated the referendum debate is more apparent now than at any time since the vote. The activity that we see in Parliament is a continuation of the vapid campaigns and, if the government’s White Paper is any kind of a guide, the understanding of what will be required to secure a negotiated settlement is pretty scanty amongst the Rolls Royce minds of the British civil service too.

I did not think that my opinion of politicians could sink much lower, but this level of ninnydom is apparently the new normal. It is particularly disheartening to see people, like Owen Paterson and Nick Clegg (to name one individual from either side of the debate), who have, on occasion, demonstrated knowledge above and beyond that of the average MP, descending to the same level as their parliamentary brethren.

Prior to the vote, I honestly thought that somebody with some knowledge of the EU would restrain the Tories and, given the general disdain that Parliament typically exhibits for public sentiment, I also anticipated significant push back on the matter of leaving the Single Market without any alternative arrangements in place. Failing that, I thought that the public at large would demand something more substantial than the aspiration to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement before the Article 50 process was started. It appears that I was wrong on all three counts.

Rather than recognising reality, the various Remainer and Leaver tribes have retreated even further into their comfort zones, refusing to engage in anything even resembling reasoned debate regarding how the UK should leave the EU and what form our relationship should take thereafter.

The pretence that EU withdrawal is all about negotiating an FTA is, in many ways, a continuation of The Great Deception, which would have us believe that the EU is little more than a trade bloc and that EU institutions are so entwined with UK governance that to even attempt a separation is impossible.

That cognitive dissonance was nowhere more apparent than in the comments of the honourable member for Rushcliffe who said that “the nature of the debate”, orchestrated by the appointed campaigns, demonstrated why the question of EU membership was unsuited to a referendum. The fact that those campaigns were run by and for the politicians, with nary a peep from the Electoral Commission (nor from Parliament), regarding the appalling quality of their output, appears to have escaped old Clarkey’s attention.

To compound the insult, now we have the leader of Clarke’s beloved Tory Party telling us that the government will strive “to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded” with that to be followed by an indefinite “implementation phase”.

The Tories are engineering a false choice between leaving without an agreement and what will amount to an association agreement. Neither of those options appeals to me and I do not accept that, in a democracy, the electorate should simply accept the will of government as a fait accompli. The referendum decided whether the UK should leave the EU not how.

To that end, practically the only coherent position that establishment leaders and parties have offered is to oppose the idea of using the EEA as a temporary staging-post, pending a longer-term settlement which reorients our relationship with continental Europe so as to recognise political reality.

David Cameron repeatedly misled the House of Commons with respect to Norway’s relationship with the EU and Vote Leave—in the form of Dominic Cummings, Douglas Carswell, John Redwood and sundry others—were quick to affirm their agreement with the then Prime Minister. Much of the Remain campaign centred around the lie that EFTA states have “no say” in the making of “EU rules”.

The latest legacy party mouthpiece to warn against adopting the most reasonable and low-risk exit route—the one most likely to succeed and put us in a positive position to move forward when the time is right—is the avowed EU “federalist” and former Liberal Democrat MEP, Andrew Duff.

Duff has carved out a very peculiar position for himself among the Brexit community, his every utterance being treated with exaggerated seriousness by those who regard themselves as among the smarter, more informed Brexiteers. Duff, no fool, for his part, plays his role with aplomb, subtlety suggesting that people support positions which suit his beloved EU while couching his agenda-driven polemics in pseudo-academic vernacular.

What then does the great Remainer sage of Brexit say about the UK participating in the Single Market as part of EFTA rather than as part of the EU?

The problem is that EEA membership implies the most massive loss of national sovereignty since 1066, carries a large EU budgetary burden and involves free movement of workers — all of which the voters thought they were rejecting in the Brexit referendum.

These are the same three topics that both the eurosceptic and the europhile aristocracy have centred all of their attention on. The apparent concern for the views of those who voted to leave the EU from those who have taken Britain further and further into the EU these past 44 years defies cynicism.

It is always possible that there is some part of this that I am missing, but, for the time being, I can only think that these people want to see the UK fail.

Not that we need accept that the agenda should be determined by the liars and cynics who have precluded any form of debate on the form that Britain’s future relationship with continental Europe should take. There are alternatives to EU membership and an FTA, which preserves the idea of a Europe of concentric circles, centred around the EU, is a substandard end-game.

Embracing and extending the EEA to create a European economic space threatens EU supranationalism. An equal partnership would allow us to co-operate as required in the areas of trade and technical regulation without imposing one-size-fits-all policies on diverse European peoples, countries and cultures.

In recent weeks, Merkel, Verhofstadt and Junker have all been talking about how the EU needs to change—and, if you have followed this debate with any kind of honesty, you will know that can only mean “more Europe”, i.e. more political integration and more power for Brussels. If we’re really serious about EU withdrawal, isn’t it about time we started thinking about and proposing alternative forms for European co-operation?

It’s time to recover Europe from the EU.