The Brussels elite have always wanted to punish the UK for leaving – Theresa May must not let them succeed

The Brussels elite have always wanted to punish the UK for leaving – Theresa May must not let them succeed

Chequers is hated at home for proposing to keep Britain ‘half-in’ the EU. It was not loved in Brussels for much the same reason. For the EU, ‘half-in’ does not go far enough. The latest round of eleventh hour talks orchestrated before Wednesday’s EU summit indicates they are determined to force the UK far further.

Despite comments from Donald Tusk suggesting a Canada-style deal is possible, the bloc believes it can do much better at Britain’s expense: if she is to leave the EU with the benefits of seamless trade, they want Britain to remain in the Customs Union; it is not enough for it obediently to ape the EU’s rules as Chequers would oblige.

That position makes sense in the EU’s terms. The EU has been nothing if not consistent. It has from the start taken the view that any deal offered to the UK must be a bad one, designed to discourage others following where Britain has led. Indeed, EU strategy since June 2016 has been to turn the defeat (for them) of the referendum vote into victory by boxing Britain in to the talks timetable, insisting on the UK divorce payment and EU citizens’ rights.

That means that, for the EU, the UK must not be allowed to rival the bloc as a free market competitor, enjoying free trade with third countries or being free to buy and sell non-EU compliant goods. It must conform to the bloc’s blueprint. There must be no competition from the UK’s free market economy, the antithesis of French dirigisme, on which the EU’s control and command model is cloned.

Despised by the EU as a ‘gig’ economy, the UK’s economy is – by EU (and French) standards – light on social protection, tax and regulation; big on entrepreneurship, risk and free markets; and, worst of all, successful. Such an economy must not be left unfettered to compete. The playing field must be level there can be no cherry-picking and Single Market rules and obligations must be obeyed in return for any benefits.

Although Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy, it must continue to buy EU goods at EU prices, rather than becoming a free trade haven for cheaper imports from third countries with the UK’s 70 million people and economy held captive, unable to reap the true Brexit bonus. The UK’s industries and business would be bound by hated and costly compliance with the EU rulebooks restricting entrepreneurship.

What, then, of Donald Tusk’s indication that the EU would be willing to accept a Britain fully out, being willing to reach a Canada plus plus-type trade agreement – an outcome that would be in UK interests? It amounts to little, since the EU is counting on deploying the Irish border to make this choice impossible for the British Government and force it back onto Chequers minus minus – a Chequers that not only surrenders to the EU on goods law but ties the UK even more closely to the EU by agreeing to an indefinite, perhaps never-ending, period as a member of the Customs Union. Otherwise, the EU claims, there would not be a soft Irish border. The Green card is now being played for all it is worth, with a complicit Irish Taoiseach keen to prove his nationalist credentials against Sinn Fein at home and perhaps to line up a lucrative job for himself in Brussels if and when his shaky coalition falls.

Despite the EU’s apparent intransigence, the Prime Minister should hold firm to the technological solution. It was proposed by the UK Government back in 2017, is already proven and recommended by many trade authorities (including an EU-commissioned study group on the Irish border) for today’s borders, and is in line with contemporary trends on cross-border trade. She should acknowledge that the border is a pawn in the power struggle by the EU to keep the UK to a Chequers-style agreement but going far further to remain a member of the Customs Union.

To anyone reflecting on the many thousands of miles of borders between the EU and 19 third countries, the fact that the Irish border has prompted so much political frenzy may seem bizarre: other EU borders are with a variety of third countries, including a motley of states – dictatorships and lands racked by armed struggles, or used as transit points for mass immigration, or for smuggling and the slave trade. By contrast, the Irish border divides two peaceful, democratic neighbours, sharing a common law tradition and the closest ties of culture, history and economy, living in harmony and mutual self-interest and with the Belfast Agreement a matter of practical cooperation – an agreement it should be noted to which the EU was not a signatory.

There is no reason for Britain’s Prime Minister to back the EU version of a ‘soft border’ by entering a Customs Union for all the UK. If there was any truth in the German press reports at the weekend that the Government had been panicked into a secret deal with the EU, which it was set to sign before even announcing it in the UK, this high-handed action resonates not with the UK’s democratic tradition of freedom, but the EU’s attempt to deny it.

Mrs May should heed not the EU but her own people: voters who voted Leave, MPs who back the authority of the democratic mandate, her own government in rebellion over an enforced customs union, and the informed authorities on both sides of the Irish Sea that back technology, not the backstop as the best basis for a soft border. She should recognise that the EU is from its perspective doing what it does best – protecting the interest of its elites and its project of ever closer union, not its people. Her task is not to make the EU’s easier, but to honour the democratic mandate from which her authority to govern comes.