“We will take control of our own laws”, Theresa May told Tory MPs in her Article 50 speech in the Commons, “and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice [ECJ]”. Conservatives talk about Brexit as if it is some liberation from foreign domination. The recovery of British “sovereignty”. Yet as the UK White Paper said in February, “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout Britain’s membership of the EU”. So, they do they keep talking about Brussels as some kind of imperial overlord?
The European Court of Justice is essentially there to adjudicate on trading disputes between countries that are members of the unique internal market that has taken 60 years to create in the EU. It’s very complicated and legalistic – it has to be. Europe is a big club of 28 diverse nations and has to have rules to which all adhere. This involves a certain loss, or pooling, of sovereignty, but no one seriously believes that countries such as France or Germany have ceased to be independent states.
Mrs May’s speech was a mass of contradictions. She said Britain will “pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union that allows for the freest possible trade in goods and services”. What on earth does she think the single market is, if not just that? Countries are queueing up to join the EU because they want access to its 500 million consumers. Mrs May herself concedes that, in any future trade deal, Britain will have to “align with the rules”; only without any say on them.
There was loud guffawing when the Prime Minister declared that “protectionism is on the rise in many parts of the world”. What does she think Brexit is, if not protectionist? These are the first international trade negotiations in half a century in which the objective is to restore tariff barriers in Europe instead of remove them. There was much ironic laughter too when she added: “Now more than ever the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe.” These values are enshrined in the treaties of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights, which is also in the Brexiters’ line of fire.
Mrs May painted a rosy picture of a free Britain ”making its way in the world”. She said that the UK will now be free to seek trading relationships with countries outside the EU. But this is simply barking. There is nothing to stop EU countries from trading with the rest of the world. Why does she think Donald Trump is so angry about all those Mercedes cars being sold in America? Germany is the third largest global trading nation after China and America and it dominates much of Asian trade. The EU is the greatest engine of free trade in goods and services the world has seen.
Mrs May isn’t stupid enough to believe all of this Ukip nonsense; she was, after all, a supporter of remaining in the EU. But she now expects the British public to swallow a Brexit fantasy of “Global Britain” becoming the hub of a new anglophone Commonwealth, dubbed “British Empire 2.0” by wags in the Foreign Office. Britain tried that in the 1950s and 60s and it didn’t work. The world has moved on from the days when Winston Churchill could talk about the “British Empire lasting 1,000 years”.
The Prime Minister made a not-very-subtle suggestion that security and anti-terrorism cooperation might cease if Europe does not allow Britain to have full access to the single market without accepting its rules. This is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, and then cutting off your ears as well. The EU, with its founding principles of democracy and human rights, is the best defence against the rise of authoritarian regimes.
The UK is a relatively small, multinational state whose economic and strategic security is inextricably bound up with being part of Europe. That’s why American presidents (sensible ones) have traditionally supported European integration. American and Japanese companies have been locating in Britain over the past 40 years to gain access to the single market.
Mrs May made clear that her only real objection to the single market is that it involves freedom of movement. Well, 27 European nations seem to have no trouble with mobility of labour, a principle that Margaret Thatcher endorsed. It is not synonymous with unrestricted immigration or benefit tourism. This was an admission by the Prime Minister that Brexit isn’t really about trade but about keeping foreigners out.
Mrs May said that Britain would “control immigration so that we continue to attract the brightest and best”. Someone should tell her that brightest and best are no longer coming to Britain but making their way to Canada, Australia or the EU.
Ask universities such as Edinburgh which are finding that students and staff just don’t want to come here any more because they believe, with justification, that they’re no longer welcome. Yet, if Britain is going to increase its trade with countries such as India, it’s going to have to accept non-EU free movement, as political leaders there have made clear.
There is much resentment in the former British colony, not just that Britain has never properly apologised for the era of imperial domination but also that the UK Government has been placing increasingly onerous restrictions on Indians coming here to work and study.
Mrs May said that she wants a Britain that “our children and grandchildren can be proud to live in”. Well here’s the news: our children and grandchildren, who are committed internationalists, will spend the next 40 years trying to undo this mean-minded, incoherent and economically irrational act of national self-harm. In the meantime, goodnight Brexit Britain.