Judging by the leaks coming out in Germany (for a good discussion of their implications go to the EU Referendum blog here), last week’s dinner between British prime minister Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s top bureaucrat, did not go well.
Theresa May has dismissed reports of a fractious Downing Street meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker in Downing Street as “Brussels gossip” after claims of a bitter fall out . A German newspaper reported that after a dinner on Wednesday evening Mr Juncker accused Mrs May of being “deluded” and said it was “more likely than not” that Brexit talks would fail. According to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported Mr Juncker told Mrs May “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.”
Somehow I suspect that it was always going to go this way. Even pouring the bibulous Juncker a few more drinks would have made little difference. The gulf between London and Brussels is too wide. And, yes, I am inclined to believe the leaked account even if the source is close to Juncker, a man with few qualms about a spot of strategically helpful lying:
Those steering the EU project are furious at what Juncker described, prior to the Brexit referendum, as Britain’s ‘desertion’, a move that eurofundamentalists see as a betrayal and, should too soft a deal be struck, an encouragement to others to quit the union too.
Speaking before the referendum, Juncker expanded on what lay ahead:
If the British should say No, which I hope they don’t, then life in the EU will not go on as before…The United Kingdom will have to accept being regarded as a third country, which won’t be handled with kid gloves.
‘Third country’ is, in this context, a technical term, although not one that’s too difficult to decipher. Once out of the EU’s club, a country is, absent any alternative arrangement, out of the club, with all that that entails for trade and more.
Now, of course negotiations are at an early stage and it would be perfectly normal for Juncker to take a very tough line at this point, but his observation that May might be ‘deluded’, at least so far as the size of the task that lies ahead is concerned, might well, sadly, not be so far off the mark.
Mrs Merkel then won cheers from the Bundestag by reminding them that, by deciding to leave the single market and the European Economic Area (EEA), Britain is choosing to become automatically what the EU classifies as a “third country”. This means we cannot possibly hope to enjoy anything like the ease of trading with the EU that we have now.
As again some of us have long been warning, this means we are choosing to exclude ourselves from the system which gives us unrestricted access to easily our largest export market, and the source of 30 per cent of our food. Up will go border controls on all our frontiers with the EU (including that in Northern Ireland). The days when 12,000 trucks a day could cross freely from Dover to Calais, and much else, will be over.
There is no way that any one-off “trade deal” of the kind Theresa May and her colleagues are imagining could get round any of this, and the practical implications of this for Britain are horrendous. That is precisely why some of us have long tried to point out that the only conceivably sensible way for us to leave the EU, wholly desirable though that is, would be to have remained in the EEA and to join Norway in the European Free Trade Area (Efta).
It is terrifying how deliberately our politicians, led by the “Ultra-Brexiteers” around Theresa May, have refused to consider what this could have given us: continued trading as we have now; exemption from most of the rulings of the European Court of Justice; freedom to negotiate our own trade deals with the outside world; even a unilateral right under the EEA agreement to exercise, in our national interest, some selective control over immigration from the EU.
But all this, by failing to do the necessary homework, the Ultra-Brexiteers have shut their eyes to. They have not begun to grasp the realities of what would be needed to achieve a properly workable disengagement from that system of government we have been part of and ruled by for 44 years.
They will shortly be brought up against all those hard realities to which they have remained oblivious, in ways far more unpleasant than they can yet imagine. That is what Sir Ivan Rogers was hinting at when he spoke of “ill-informed and muddled thinking” at the top of government, before he resigned last December as our top man in Brussels. And it is what Mrs Merkel means when she says that British ministers have so far just been wasting time in chasing “illusions”.