Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, may be right, but the way he is saying it is likely to have the worst possible effect.
This summer saw the release of Christopher’s Nolen’s Dunkirk – and a fine film it is too. But it has got nothing to do with Brexit. Unlike in the late spring of 1940, the UK is not a lone voice trying to fight off the forces of tyranny. There is no need for rousing Churchillian speeches saying ‘we will fight them on the beaches’, or ‘we will never surrender’. The EU is a block that is designed to create prosperity, stability and peace, and through the auspices of the European Court of Human Rights, tries to uphold compliance with rules that are the antitheses of what NAZI Germany stood for. Why then does Michel Barnier seem determined to rouse the Churchillian spirit among the British people?
We can forgive him for saying, “I don’t hear any whistling,” it was a somewhat patronising comment but was after-all replying to an inane comment by Boris Johnson. We can forgive him for saying the ‘the clock is ticking’, it comes across as being aggressive, but then negotiations can be like that.
But when he says the Brexit negotiation as an opportunity to “teach the British people and others what leaving the EU means,” he immediately panders to those forces who want us to see the EU as an anathema.
Does he have no comprehension of why so many people in the UK voted Brexit?
When he says “I have a state of mind … but not aggressive,” does he not understand that ‘aggressive’ is precisely how he comes across.
People voted for Brexit for a variety of reasons, and people who voted to remain largely voted for the same reasons.
But Remain voters do not lack patriotism, do not lack pride in being British, and do feel uncomfortable at the merest hint that the UK is being bullied.
The Brexit talks were never going to be easy. The EU needs to ensure that the UK is worse off out than in, otherwise the trickle of EU exits represented by Brexit may become a torrent, this is understood.
Before the EU referendum, there was a narrative emanating from the Brexit camp that exit would be easy – that since the EU needs the UK more than it needs the EU, it would roll over and accede to UK demands.
But such a view takes no account of European sensibilities, or indeed European economics, the EU does not need the UK more than the UK needs the EU. The more idealistic Brexiteers see the idea of free trade as self-evident, that the benefits of international cooperation are so clear cut, that there is no need to belong to a club, no need to be a signatory to a treaty that simply formalises what is, prime facia, a good idea. Why have rules – with all the negative connotations that come with that – forcing us to do what, on the whole, we want to do anyway?
But this view always was naive. A thousand years of war and discord in Europe shows the necessity of something more permanent tying countries together.
But then if you dare Britain, if you attempt to beat it into a corner, the reaction is never going to be what you want it to be.
You can almost hear the indignation of the ten million plus people who voted Brexit at the merest suggestion they need educating, how they reason that the words spoken by Barnier confirm they were right to vote the way they did.
Even Remain voters must be horrified, they may secretly agree with Mr Barnier, but they get the British sense of pride in a way that Mr Barnier clearly does not.
At just that point when many in the Remain Camp feel that Brexit is drifting closer in a direction that suits them, the EU’s negotiator threatens to curtail that.
He must be careful, or the UK, egged on by an insulted electorate, may go belligerent, and hard Brexit with no divorce bill may become the preferred route, again.