Nearly three years into Britain’s European divorce, the Conservative party is not ready to take custody of the consequences. But the prime minister wants visiting rights.
The phase of slamming doors and empty threats shouted through Brussels letterboxes is over. Rishi Sunak understands that his only hope of political survival lies with economic recovery, to which end he needs a functional relationship with the EU. But compromise in Brussels poisons the mood of Conservative MPs, making political survival harder.
It is an impossible conundrum because the facts about Britain’s dependency on the single market offend the sacred core of Brexit. That is why Eurosceptic hardliners reacted with fury to reports that senior figures in the government were mooting a “Swiss-style” arrangement with the EU.
The terminology is unhelpful. Even the Swiss don’t like having a Swiss-style relationship with the EU. It is a mess of multiple treaties. The core transaction is single market access, in exchange for which Switzerland pays into the European budget, while taking regulatory dictation and accepting free movement of people – the three unforgivable curses of submission to Brussels in Eurosceptic lore.
Sunak’s government wants something more nebulous that might ease friction in trade, but on terms that can’t be portrayed as a betrayal of Brexit. Keir Starmer wants the same thing, not from any ideological conviction but in the belief that the safest profile for Labour to have in any European debate is a low one, on the sidelines of Tory dysfunction.
That might be politically expedient, but it makes the opposition complicit in the most persistent and pernicious Brexit myth – denying the imbalance of power between Britain and a bloc of 27 countries on its doorstep.
Ignorance or wilful misrepresentation of the single market was the binding thread in a triple fallacy in the economic case for leaving the EU. First, Europe was dismissed as the dotard of the global economy, sclerotic and declining. The real prize was therefore trade deals with rising powers further afield. Second, Britain wouldn’t lose the benefits of the single market anyway, because EU businesses would lobby to retain access to UK consumers. Third, the cost of regulatory compliance with EU rules was greater than any benefit of membership.
Sunak cited all three in an article explaining his decision to vote leave in 2016. Europe’s share of the global economy was shrinking relative to other continents, he explained. “Canada, South Korea and South Africa all trade freely with Europe without surrendering their independence. As one of Europe’s largest customers, I see no sensible reason why we could not achieve a similar agreement.” Also, “excessive red tape” stifled every British business, even the ones that don’t export to the continent.
It is clear from those arguments that Sunak’s understanding of the single market was limited to the repertoire of dogmatic ditties that a thrusting young Tory learns to sing if he wants to be selected as the parliamentary candidate in a safe seat. Ministerial colleagues and officials in the Treasury say that his grasp of the issue was later enriched by the experience of serving as chancellor. By then, Brexit was a fait accompli.