I don’t doubt the best intentions of Theresa May to carry out the will of the people and to see through Brexit. Despite her untrustworthy civil service looming in the background, I believe Mrs May recognises the need to respect the result of Britain’s ultimate democratic exercise.
At the same time, Britain has so far been very even-handed in its negotiations over its decision to leave the EU. Whether it was the prime minister making positive noises about all things European during her Florence speech, or the huge concessions that were made to conclude Phase One of the withdrawal process, every sinew has been strained to accommodate Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. Indeed, our side even gave in to Barnier’s ransom demand of a £40bn exit fee, believing that if we did so our EU friends would at some point start to be nice to us.
Throughout the process, Barnier has always asked for more and more. In a sense this has come as no surprise to me. He made it very clear when I met him last month that no rounded trade deal that included both goods and services was possible.
But our attitude has been far too generous. If anybody doubts what I am saying, they should read the latest leaked document, “Technical Arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement”, in which the EU demands outrageous unilateral powers during the transition. It gives a true insight into the nature of the people with whom we are we are dealing. I’ve fought them for years in the chamber in Strasbourg. They are the arrogant, bullying elite who never take no for an answer – and who encouraged so many people to vote Leave in the first place. Remember: we are trying to reason with fanatical EU nationalists who are so keen on the completion of their European project that they are even prepared to turn a blind eye to police brutality in Catalonia.
Under this new plot, Britain would have to submit to powers which would not need to go through the European courts. We would be denied a veto on fishing quotas, massively compromising what remains of our fishing industry. Worse still, the EU would have the ability to punish Britain for future offences as yet unknown. For example, it seems very likely that any attempt forcing EU nationals coming to the UK during the transition period to register would incur action from the EU. This could mean punishments on trade or even flights going to EU states being suspended.
This would amount to an acceptance of arbitrary power without even the say-so of EU’s own political court in Luxembourg. George Orwell himself couldn’t have dreampt up a more sinister predicament for Britain.
Any assurances by our government, our prime minister or our MPs that Britain will not cave into these terms must be judged by their record to date. The fact is, we have lost every battle so far, and the pressures from certain businessmen and Mrs May’s own Remainer MPs suggest that another surrender is inevitable.
I’m not in the least bit surprised by Brussels’ behaviour. It is not just the UK they are bullying. Poland and Hungary are in the firing line as well. EU bureaucrats are striving for a centralised, authoritarian United States of Europe. Even a federal Europe would be far better than this.
On that basis, what is astonishing is the weak demeanour of the British government. We now look like a nation that has been defeated in war, with a crestfallen leader who makes the occasional bleating noise in order to beg for better conditions.
Any acceptance of these arbitrary powers to punish us truly would make us Vichy Britain. The Prime Minister may worry about the parliamentary arithmetic which dogs her every move, and may be fretting over how best to satisfy both wings of her party, but for Brexit to really happen, such thoughts are trivial. Something decisive is needed.
The fact is, the EU’s tactic of being totally unreasonable at every single stage is beginning to work. It is making some Brexit voters begin to wonder whether their goals will ever be achievable.
This is why real leadership is desperately needed. A Prime Minister that stood up and said “Enough is enough, we will not be treated like this and we will never accept such terms” would find herself – or himself – winning overwhelming support across the country. And it would not just be Conservatives that cheer them on. They would find many Labour voters backing them as well.
The moment is now. If our prime minister takes the country with her, I believe she could achieve absolutely anything.