Friendship and cooperation
No, Theresa May was not mortally humiliated at the current EU summit underway in Brussels. Somehow, probably after a few nights in intensive care and some trauma therapy, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will bounce back from being denied the opportunity to make idle small talk for a few minutes with the likes of Federica Mogherini.
Let’s be serious. Were there non-stop footage of every political leader to ever attend an EU summit, we could undoubtedly find instances where each one of them stood alone with nobody to talk to for a short while, even the sainted Angela Merkel. Keep watching the video beyond the first twenty seconds and you actually see May engaged in several conversations with other European leaders. This is a complete non-story.
But seizing on the footage of Theresa May looking momentarily awkward, however, helps to reinforce a narrative that Remainers (and their friends in the media) are desperate to encourage – that of pathetic, little old Britain being banished to the margins of the world having voted to isolate ourselves “from Europe”.
This is an idiotic and superficial analysis, and it speaks volumes about the people pushing the theory that they seem to take delight in what they see as the humiliation of their own prime minister (who, let’s not forget, represents all of us). If Brexiteers have been too harsh in impugning the patriotism of Remainers, as is sometimes claimed, then now is the time for Remainers to finally take their patriotism out for a spin. They claim that our prime minister has just been insulted on the world stage – therefore they should be encouraging a collective national outrage rather than trying to score smug political points.
Remainers claimed throughout the referendum campaign that the EU is a bastion of rationality, of grown up countries cooperating sensibly with one another. Well, what is grown up and sensible about deliberately ostracising one head of government just because the member state she represents is exercising its right to leave (not that any such ostracisation took place)? What is enlightened and admirable about such childish behaviour? And why is this snarling, punitive and insecure little club something of which we would want any further part?
Iain Martin goes further in a piece for Reaction:
It’s a funny video, although not in the way May’s opponents might think. Funny meaning odd, curious, in that your response to it is probably shaped by your existing view of May and Brexit.
For Leavers – and quite a few Remainers who accept the reality that Brexit will happen and no amount of shenanigans by Blair, Mandelson and Clegg (what a dream team!) will stop it - a British Prime Minister being treated in a rude fashion will only encourage Brits to say “if that’s your attitude then please get stuffed” to the EU.
In that gathering I see a room that is overwhelmingly male – a sausage party of smugness. May is too polite or diffident to charge up to them and start “handbagging” and beating up the boys Thatcher-style, so she hovers. Millions of people, most people, who lack liberal elite social confidence will know the feeling from school or parties ever since. It induces sympathy.
We’re not talking to you, you smell, we don’t like you, is the message. Oh, and the UK is not invited to dinner.
The response all this provokes – in me, anyway – is incredulity at the continuing stupidity of the EU’s leaders in their determination to rough up Britain in a manner that amounts to self-harm. Yes, we voted to leave the EU, which is our right and had been coming for ages, but we cannot leave Europe. That would be a geographic, culinary, cultural, commercial impossibility, thank goodness. That means we are going to have to get along, and find new ways of co-operating and co-existing. Punishing Britain and being rude to Theresa May is simply a waste of time and energy, when the world is changing this fast.
I would caution Iain Martin against going down the identity politics route, trying to drum up additional sympathy for Theresa May by portraying her as a lone female in a room of arrogant and threatening men. I see no evidence that gender has anything to do with this non-story. Martin (I assume) is not a fan of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, and he should avoid resorting to their tactic of playing the oppression card when engaging in argument.
But that minor quibble aside, Martin is quite right. Many people will indeed empathise with the awkwardness of walking into the middle of a room of people who generally already know each other quite well and who are already engrossed in conversation. Throw in the fact that the television cameras were rolling and May becomes quite a sympathetic character. So if Remainers’ best argument is now “see how they treat you when you scorn them and try to leave the club” then I think it will largely backfire.
If anything, the history of recent British diplomacy has been one of excessive fawning and deference, punching well beneath our weight considering our status as Europe’s second biggest economy, one of only two nuclear powers and possessing the continent’s most deployable and skilled armed forces, not to mention the popularity and dominance of our culture. Martin also picks up on this point:
Britain has the leading listening, intelligence and security capability in Europe, at a time when the place is under assault from jihadist maniacs and the Russians are out to discredit democracy and create mischief in elections in Germany and France. Even in its depleted state, Britain is a leading player in Nato, which is dedicated to the defence of Western Europe. On the cyberwarfare front in particular that defence is now an urgent priority.
The UK also provides in the City of London the capital of the eurozone, which makes the giant debt machine go round. The British economy is growing and we buy a lot of cars and much else from Europe.
What will it take to wake up the countries of the EU? Their post-1989 experiment is in a terrible state, with the euro and open borders proving to be a disaster. They need a bit of humility and a rethink.
I don’t normally go for “we buy lots of cars from them!” style arguments, but it is not wrong, and everything else that Martin says is persuasive.
If anything, the trouble is that our goodwill and cooperation is too easily taken for granted by our partners. We tend to enforce EU laws and directives while other countries skirt, bend or flout them. We generally honour our obligations with little fuss. And so we should, when that behaviour is equally reciprocated. But right now that reciprocity is missing.
The fact that Britain will be a supplicant during the secession negotiations is currently emboldening the leaders of some otherwise quite unremarkable and forgettable countries to “play the big man” and swagger around, lecturing or threatening Britain safe under the wing of Brussels. They would be advised to realise that at some point Brexit will be complete, and that future goodwill and cooperation from Britain – which many of them need – should not be taken for granted if things become too heated or punitive during the exit negotiations.
Martin notes that the shift is already starting to happen:
Away from Brussels the smart Poles have realised that Britain will remain a partner, and are talking of the UK being the key country in the defence and security space in Europe. The Germans too, seem to be waking up to the need for a different way of thinking about these questions. The conversation at a dinner I was at recently with German policymakers and business people was one of the most interesting, open and illuminating things I’ve heard all year.
But Brussels blunders on, playing its usual games, thinking it clever to humiliate the naughty British. Carry on like this and they really can get stuffed.
It is altogether time for less EU-style holding hands beneath a rainbow (which is all fake, anyway) and more good old fashioned self-interest and realpolitik. Immediately following Brexit we witnessed a number of gestures of solidarity and support from true allies outside the EU while our supposed partners and allies within dealt in condescending language and veiled threats. That alone tells us that membership of the European Union has forced us to pour time and effort into nurturing partnerships which were never natural or terribly fruitful while having to ignore closer and more natural alliances beyond the artificial construct of the EU.
But if the EU and its member states are behaving irrationally and emotionally it is only because they remain in thrall to a beguiling, powerful but unachievable vision of continental political union by stealth from which Britain thankfully escaped. Sensing an existential threat to the group delusion, other countries may naturally wish to lash out at Britain, to make us “pay the price” (and there will be a price – serious Brexiteers have never shied away from that fact).
But while this may explain intransigent or punitive behaviour from the European Union, it will not excuse such antics for much longer. The time for childish temper tantrums and playground insults is over. Voters in Britain and across Europe did not elect their politicians with a mandate to create unnecessary drama just because one country chose to reject a rusting mid-century vision of political union and peaceably extricate itself from that union. And unnecessary drama they must absolutely not create.
A deal must be done and the deal will be done. Hopefully it will be a deal based on common sense, achieving the goal of extricating us from the political union we voted to leave while taking a transitory and measured approach (through continued EEA participation) to avoid any cliff-edges or avoidable economic disruption.
But whatever kind of deal emerges, it will not be influenced by video footage of Theresa May standing alone at an EU summit, no matter how much the images may warm the hearts of strangely-motivated Remainers.
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