War, it has been said, is diplomacy by other means. Once Article 50 is triggered this week, and negotiations on Brexit begin in the summer, we shall see that diplomacy is war by other means.
“Come off it sunshine” was the crass response of our Foreign Secretary to the recent warnings by Sir John Major that the British people had been led by our Government “to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic” and to John Major’s appeal for the right to disagree to be respected rather than denigrated.
We are soon to embark on the most significant negotiation in 50 years in the life of our country. The underlying idea of the EEC, now the EU, was so to intertwine the fates and fortunes of its members, economically and politically, that it would be more in their interests to cooperate than to quarrel. Of course, you can do a bit of both. And the institutional structures of the project were designed to place the national interests of the member states inside a framework of supra-national rules which would manage those quarrels, prevent the large from bullying the weak, assist the economic convergence of countries of disparate levels of prosperity and enable values to be shared, and common policies to be agreed both internally and externally.
Late as the UK was to the party, we played a significant part in shaping today’s EU: from the single market, to aid, climate change and energy policy and to a common policy in foreign affairs and security. All of that we are now to leave behind. We have to forge a new trade relationship with the countries that make up our largest market and which have, until now, been part of our domestic market. We shall negotiate as a third country. We have opted to demote ourselves from the Premier League and we shall get to play on our old pitches only if those who presently have to allow us to do so by right are willing to concede some of our old privileges. In all the other areas where we now make policy from inside we shall have to lobby, from the outside, for our interests.
In a sane world, the balance of mutual interest between the UK and her former partners would point to sensible compromise. But we look set instead for an angry bar brawl. In Brussels, there is talk of the huge bill the UK will have to pay to settle its debts: talk that will fuel the Eurosceptic Press here to demand that the Government walk away from the negotiating table. Here, our Government cannot decide between being Uriah Heap and Attila the Hun: we cajole and wheedle one day and make bullying threats the next. Both sides risk words and actions which will turn friends into enemies.
The dangerous scenario is compounded by the electoral timetable in continental Europe. Governments are preoccupied by their internal politics. As Mr Juncker ad Mr Verhofstadt urge their troops to battle with perfidious Albion and as some of our Press and politicians raise the tempo of their insidious jingoism, will the leaders of France or Germany have the will and latitude to stay the hand of the Brussels zealots? Who in our Government will be strong enough to stand up to the jingoism which will be whipped up by a section of the Press, UKIP and the Tory Party?
Over half those who voted in the referendum elected to leave the EU. Just under half voted to remain. Did anyone vote for the ruination which could be our fate if leaders here and on the continent do not step back, look at what is precious in our present relationship and vow to work to preserve it? That requires an adult conversation between our Government and our partners. And between our Government and us, the electorate, in place of the self-serving inanities of Mr Johnson or the empty boasts of Mr Fox.
Theresa May was a senior member of the Government which explained, in detailed public documents, the risks in leaving. Now, any attempt to present the realities is dismissed by No 10 as a denial of the referendum result and as weakening our negotiating hand. Information and influence are having to be squeezed by Parliament out of a reluctant and recalcitrant executive.
No matter how we voted last June, we deserve better. And if we do not get it all of us, no matter whether, or how, we voted will pay the price.
About the author
Sir Stephen Wall was for 35 years a member of the British Diplomatic Service. He worked closely with five British Foreign Secretaries and was Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister John Major.His European experience includes five years as Head of the Foreign Office European Department; two years as Britain’s Ambassador to Portugal; five years as UK Permanent Representative to the EU and four years as EU adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. His book on Britain’s EU policy, ‘A Stranger in Europe’, was published in 2008. He has written The Official History of Britain and the European Community, 1963-1975, published in July 2012.