When Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June most Eurosceptic politicians and commentators were hoping that this would be the thin end of the wedge, the beginning of the end, the inevitable unravelling of the European project.
How wrong they were. Brexit has united the EU, to an unprecedented degree.
Ever since 23 June the 27 member-states and the EU institutions have provided a master-class in discipline and cohesion. Their positioning strategy has been devastatingly simple, and based on three steps:
First off, they stuck rigidly to the ‘no negotiation until notification’ position, making it impossible for the British government to start any sort of conversation before the triggering of article 50. Attempts were made by May and Davis to divide and conquer by exploiting bilateral channels. Those attempts were politely, but firmly, rebuffed. The only public statements were of sadness and regret, that Britain was leaving the club. And meanwhile, behind the scenes, the European Commission was steadily and methodically building its formidable political and technical negotiating teams.
Second, once article 50 was triggered, the screw began to turn. The first shot across our bows was the inclusion of Gibraltar in Donald Tusk’s draft negotiating guidelines. And then there was Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s voice on Brexit, making it clear that the EU does not give a monkey’s about the size of Theresa May’s majority. And then Angela Merkel, not a woman who is prone to making undiplomatic remarks, waded in a few days later by pointing out that some in the UK government were ‘harbouring illusions’ about the negotiations.
This teed everything up nicely for the third phase, the 29 April summit, which was a smoothly choreographed rubber-stamping of the Tusk guidelines, combined with some further ramping up of the rhetoric. The heads of state and government took just four minutes to unanimously approve the guidelines, and what a tough and uncompromising package they are. The UK must immediately provide ‘serious and real’ guarantees to EU citizens living in Britain, and the UK’s financial liabilities must be settled before any future post-Brexit transition deal can be discussed.
What a contrast to the British government, which has spent the last eight months lurching from gung-ho hubris to nonchalance, to panic, and then back again, whilst desperately trying to set up two new government departments, hire a platoon of trade negotiators, and then in the middle of it all calling a General Election.
Talk about a coalition of chaos…
The Tories are trying to persuade the British people that the increasingly tough stance and confrontational tone of the negotiations prove the need for a Conservative government, because only Theresa May’s much-vaunted ‘strong and stable’ leadership can deliver a Brexit deal that is good for Britain.
I believe that the British people are smarter than that. I think that they know that the likes of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox are like red rags to the European bull. And I think that they are realising that the last thing we need now is for the country to be run by an unchecked, unfettered Conservative Party. Left to their own devices the Tories will happily crash us out of the EU without a deal, and they will delight in using Brexit as a vehicle for turning the UK into a European version of the Cayman Islands.
The leaked account of the disastrous Brexit dinner at Downing Street between May and Juncker serves only to reinforce the narrative that has been building since the referendum. It paints a picture of a deluded British government, seemingly convinced that it will be able to cherry-pick, and unable to comprehend that our European partners also have their red lines. And it portrays the growing frustration of the EU, with Juncker apparently reminding our Prime Minister of the fact that ‘the EU is not a golf club’. Ouch.
Labour is the only party in this election that has a chance of talking the Tories down from the Brexit window ledge, and we should place this fact at the heart of our election campaign. Our pro-European credentials and internationalist values, combined with our balanced, pragmatic approach to Brexit, are precisely the qualities that the EU will be looking for after 8 June. A strong Labour party in parliament can help to re-build the trust and engagement that are so urgently needed as we embark upon these vital, complex, and high risk negotiations.
The reality is that the EU governments and institutions have been fighting a running battle with the Tories for decades. From Thatcher’s handbag to Major’s bastards to Cameron’s Big Referendum Gamble the relationship has always been deeply antagonistic, and the petty Little Englander nationalism of the Conservative Party has always made it extremely difficult to build constructive engagement.
Little wonder, then, that the EU is now spoiling for a fight.
And this is why it is so vitally important that Labour does well on 8 June. A strong Labour presence in parliament will help to get the tone and positioning of the negotiations back onto a positive footing. That will simply never be possible if the Brextremists are in charge. There is too much bad blood between them and Brussels, and there are too many scores to settle.
A Tory landslide would in fact be the worst possible result for the negotiations, as it would lead inevitably to a hardening of positions on both sides of the negotiating table. As Francois Hollande proclaimed shortly after the four-minute summit:
“the bases, the principles, the objectives are already fixed: these will be the lines that are chosen by the negotiators, and there will be no others.”
In other words, and as previously stated by his colleague Mr Verhofstadt, Hollande is saying that the EU could not care less about the size of Theresa May’s majority. But, reading between the lines, Hollande is saying more than that; he is saying that the EU sees May’s decision to call a snap election as evidence of the weakness of her negotiating position. It is her last roll of the dice before she enters the negotiating arena. A defiant gesture, but ultimately futile.
So, if you want a parliament that can help to re-build the mutual respect and trust that are pre-conditions for any successful negotiation, and if you want a Brexit deal that delivers the best possible outcomes for Britain, then you should vote Labour on 8 June.
Stephen Kinnock is MP for Aberavon