Norway? Singapore? Neither Brexit deal looks better than Europe

Wherever one goes, concerned people ask what Britain is doing. It seems clear from our actions that we don’t know

This column comes to you from Perugia in Italy, a reasonably safe haven from the shenanigans of Westminster. We have been visiting our youngest daughter, who is a beneficiary at the university of one of the many privileges of the UK’s membership of the EU: namely the kind of Erasmus scholarship that might well be threatened if the Brexiters have their way.

Although it is my fate to write about the threat of Brexit, I share the feelings of so many people I meet that there are times when one fears one is being driven insane by its prominence in the so-called national debate, when there are so many other pressing problems.

But there is no escape. On recent trips to France and Italy I have found that almost everyone asks, within minutes, questions such as “what on earth is your country up to?” This is usually followed by something to the effect that “we always used to admire your democracy”.

As my friend Lord Macpherson, who spent 11 years as the most senior official in the Treasury, observed last week: “Over the past two centuries, the British state has avoided doing anything very stupid … But there is always a first time.”

Now, I have had my differences with the Treasury over the years, not least with regard to its broad approval of austerity. Alas, I fear that this contributed in no small way to the discontent that was manifested in the 2016 referendum.

Oddly enough, the Treasury in my experience was always deeply suspicious of “Brussels”. But it knows a truly historic crisis when it sees one. My heart goes out to decent Whitehall officials who have been trying to do their best in the face of a combination of being given a mission impossible and having to cope with a tissue of what Churchill called “terminological inexactitudes” emanating from the mouth of our beleaguered prime minister about the advantages of her deal.

The uncomfortable truth is that the only deal worth doing is to stop fantasising about Canadian, Norwegian and, God help us, Singapore-style options, and opt for the best of all worlds, which is our present privileged status in the EU.

There are commentators who maintain that Brexit is just a sideshow compared with what lies in store if, as is widely feared, the major economies slow down and we arrive at the verge of another world recession. There are also those who argue that, as EU nations such as France and Italy are undergoing obvious problems of their own, we might be well shot of our membership.

On the contrary: the problems faced by the European and wider economies demand closer links and greater coordination of economic and financial policies – links of the sort that, for a long time after the second world war, the advanced nations managed with more success, as one looks back, than might have appeared at the time.

Now, as Theresa May flounders around, and the Conservative party disgraces itself and the nation, I can understand why those who have suffered most from what, for them, has been economic stagnation (or worse) should have voted Leave as a protest in 2016. With respect, I think they would be terribly mistaken to vote Leave again if there is a “people’s vote”, because there is little doubt that they would be voting against their own interests.

The Leavers I do not understand are the well-off. I think it was these Lord Heseltine had in mind when recently pointing out “those of a certain age” who voted to leave are “rapidly being replaced by a younger generation [like my daughter in Perugia] who voted 70-30 to stay”.

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In a rallying cry that reminded us how impressive his generation of MPs was, Heseltine proclaimed last week: “Let us make our position clear. We [Remainers] are the British patriots. We want a Britain at the heart of Europe because we want the voice of Britain, the tolerance of Britain, the culture of Britain, at the heart of Europe.”

For all the ridiculous posturing of politicians such as Dominic Raab complaining that the rest of the EU is not being “flexible enough”, our fellow EU members, who want us to remain, cannot understand what “the Brits” are up to, and have had their patience stretched to the limit.

With the House of Commons at sixes and sevens, and the evidence mounting that even the prospect of Brexit is doing serious damage, the case strengthens for a referendum based on evidence, not emotion.

In which context the ruling of the European court of justice that we can rescind article 50 (which commits us to leaving the EU on 29 March) is manna from heaven.

This is my last column before 25 December, so I should like to take the opportunity to wish all my readers – Remainers, Leavers and Don’t Yet Knows – a very happy Christmas.


William Keegan

The GuardianTramp

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