Europe: A Simplification of the Issues

Europe: A Simplification of the Issues
by Sean Gabb
(1st March 2018)

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One of my readers has asked for my opinion on the draft treaty of withdrawal from the European Union. Since I have not read its 120 pages, and since I have no wish to read them, I am in no position to comment. Or perhaps I am just more honest than most of those who are commenting. Whatever the case, I will not comment. Instead, I will give a general view of what seems to be happening.

Imagine that a close friend comes to you and says he no longer loves his wife, and that he wants a divorce. Your advice, I imagine, would be to think very carefully about the matter. There are children to consider. There is the house. There are joint savings and joint investments. It might not have been a good idea to marry in the first place. You may even have suggested this at the time. But that was a long time ago. Since then, two separate lives have, for all practical purposes, become one life. Separating them will be difficult, and will raise questions beside which soldiering on together might be the least bad option.

Imagine, however, that your friend says he has already told his wife. She has not broken down in tears, and apologised for any derelictions on her part, and asked to discuss some revised basis for carrying on. She has instead told the social workers that he is a drunk, or a paedophile, or a nazi, or something else, and he is no longer allowed near the children; and she has announced that she wants the house and a half-share in his mother’s house and savings, to which he is the only likely heir.

That changes things. Your friend may have acted unwisely. But he is your friend, and he is now at war. Your duty is to try to help him through. You stop questioning his overall judgement, and you turn to the matters at hand.

This is roughly where we are with our European connection. I wish the Referendum had not been called. Nobody in or near power had so much as the vaguest idea of how to leave the  European Union. Nearly two years on, nobody still knows what to do or how to do it. The politicians are all incompetent or dishonest, or both. The politicians in charge called an election, and were so sure of winning it that they effectively lost it. The politicians most likely to replace them are probably more incompetent, and certainly more dishonest. The other European powers and the European powers have now had time to recover from their initial shock, and are behaving like that spurned and vindictive wife. Though I repeat that I have no read it, I have no doubt their draft treaty is the modern equivalent of the Versailles Diktat. They are pushing this on us because they want to deter any other member state from trying to leave. I also suspect they are pushing it because, for the past three centuries, they have been repeatedly stuffed by us, and they now want to do some stuffing of their own.

If we accept the draft treaty, or anything like it, we shall have exchanged an equal membership of the European Union for satellite status. We shall have limited control over our internal regulations. We shall have limited control over our borders. We shall have consented to a unification of Ireland on the most humiliating terms. If, unable to negotiate better terms, our leaders tell us that we should stay in after all, that will involve still more humiliation. What little authority we ever had to negotiate opt-outs from inconvenient regulations will have evaporated. We shall be forced to join the Euro and the Schengen Agreement. Any future British “No!” will be met with pitying smiles and firm insistence. I will say nothing about the prospects for civil disorder in this country.

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On the bright side, the draft treaty – if as bad as I am told it is – makes everything much simpler that it was. The Tory ultras strike me as no less corrupt and dishonest than everyone else. I think little of the people concerned. But their plan, such as it is, has become the only plan on offer.

Whether she is profoundly stupid is beside the point. Our main problem with Theresa May is that she appears to be unable to make up her mind. Well, I think it was Abba Eban who said that, when everything else has been tried and seen to fail, people will often do the right thing. Here for what they are worth, are my proposals for Mrs May:

  1. Reject the draft treaty without further discussion;
  2. Propose a free trade treaty to cover goods and services, and call for a joint committee to examine how all present and future European regulations can be imposed and verified in this country for those things alone that are exported into the European Union;
  3. Tell the Irish that they can avoid a hard border with Ulster by joining us outside the European Union;
  4. Put up whatever cash may be needed in the short term to keep Ulster from economic collapse;
  5. Tell the Americans that, if they want any kind of future alliance, they should give us their full backing, and be prepared to make an emergency free trade agreement;
  6. Tell everyone to plan for an economic shock next April, and make collective preparations for dealing with it.

I further propose that the other parties should be invited to back this approach. These might not have wanted to leave the European Union. They might be in favour of continued participation in some kind of single market or customs union. But the Europeans have overplayed their hand and are behaving like a victorious enemy. I doubt there is the good will needed to manage a soft transition. Either we walk out properly, or we are forever lost. At the least, some degree of consensus in London might bring the Europeans to a better view of their interests. Consensus should be invited. Those who reject the invitation should be called the Quislings that they probably are.

That will do for the moment. In the longer term, we must sort out the ghastliness of our own internal government. Because one of my students is from there, I have been looking at Singapore. This manages to combine lowish taxes with full employment and an effective welfare system. It seems to manage this by ensuring that taxes are spent on delivering defined common services, and are not made into a feeding tube for several hundred thousand parasites and their millions of clients. The authorities there also have no visible interest in making everyone believe three impossible things every day before breakfast.

Oh, but that as well must do for the moment. Indeed, I have probably said too much on all three counts. I think it was Abba Eban who said that, when everything else has been tried and seen to fail, people will often do what is right. I am not sure if the present set of British politicians ever crossed his mind.


  1. Ah – another treaty – another referendum? Is that the game they’re playing?
    My starting point on the question of our EU membership is that the EU cannot survive without us. They are simply not going to let us just walk away. On top of that, they have a need to provide a dis-incentive to other Member States who may be eyeing up the exit doors. So they have to punish us. The fact that they will simultaneously be punishing themselves will not bother them too much.
    The European Project has been rumbling along for many decades. It is now nearing its final destination. Does anybody really believe they are going to let us blow up all their carefully laid plans just as they are putting the final bricks in place?
    They will drag out these ‘negotiations’ and then the ‘transition period’ until something comes along – maybe another government, maybe another referendum.
    The ‘Irish question’ seems to me to be insoluble – we shall have to have a border with the EU somewhere; if not between North and South, then in the middle of the Irish Sea.
    If the EU were interested in, or capable of, any meaningful negotiation, let alone concessions, we would have seen it when Mr Cameron went there cap-in-hand two years ago. They could have avoided the referendum and all this fall out from it. Instead, they just told Cameron to get lost.

  2. Theresa May is a dolt, but I don’t – at this point – share the pessimism of Dr Gabb or others here.

    May has explicitly stated in Parliament that she will not accept critical aspects of the draft and, specifically (among other things) will not accept the EU’s proposal that Northern Ireland should remain fully in the Customs Union. Incidentally, the EU’s position on Northern Ireland seems, to me, very hypocritical. If I recall, it was the British side that first canvassed the possibility of special arrangements for Northern Ireland, when about a year ago the negotiations were starting, and it was then the EU arrogantly dismissing that idea out-of-hand. I still see nothing offensive about Northern Ireland remaining as an internal member of the EU Customs Union, but full membership should be out-of-the-question: May is right on that point.

    If we are having a transition period on UK-EU free movement until the end of 2020, then at least that means we have a fixed date at which we know free movement will end. I would have preferred an end to it now, or at the latest in March 2019, but I will grudgingly take December 2020 if that is what is on offer as part of a quid pro quo of some sort.

    The ‘devil is in the detail’, it is often said, and we do need to see a user-friendly summary of the draft treaty, but there is a big picture point to consider, concerning rudimentary negotiation-sense: if May genuinely wanted an agreement with the EU – and I don’t particularly hold that against her, if that is the case – then why has she allowed the EU to do the running? It’s clear that the EU has outmanoeuvred Britain’s negotiators. Only three rational explanations can avail: either she has no intention of doing a deal or her intention is to steam-roll Parliament and the wider country into accepting a de facto situation that keeps us tethered to the EU, the two things not necessarily being mutually-exclusive. The third possibility is simple incompetence.

    Here’s a link to the Joint Report published in December 2017: Notice the similarities between this and the key provisions of the draft treaty. The referendum result threw the EU a wobbly. My instinct was towards the view that the Brussels elite would, after the initial shock subsided and given the opportunity for due and calm reflection, celebrate the prospect of Britain leaving, allowing Brussels to double-down its federalist agenda. At that point, I think there was a deal to be done, but it required very speedy action. Britain could have negotiated a clean break, perhaps with a financial bribe attached as the price to pay for keeping the rump EU together and retaining whatever selective benefits we wanted and the EU was willing to give. Instead Britain’s elite dithered and delayed for months. Either Britain has been led by the nose, or we have traitors steering the ship.

    However, things may still work out. If the end result of this part of Brexit is that we become formally detached from the EU, people will see the benefit of this and the argument for a clean break will become stronger. I am optimistic.

    • I agree that even a bad agreement – within limits – give us room to walk out later on. Keeping with the marriage analogy, moving out of the marital home into the garden shed is less than ideal; but the first step has been taken. So long as he doesn’t shack up with the loud and vulgar woman across the road, our man is on the way to freedom.

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