Brian Wilson: Why UK is going to have to swallow EU's agenda on Brexit

I'm not sure why, but I took part in a BBC Radio Ulster discussion to mark this week's 45th anniversary of UK accession to the European Community and consider parallels with current events. They are quite useful as a guide to what happens next.
Edward Heath leaves for summit talks on Common Market entry with the French President Georges Pompidou in Paris. Picture: PAEdward Heath leaves for summit talks on Common Market entry with the French President Georges Pompidou in Paris. Picture: PA
Edward Heath leaves for summit talks on Common Market entry with the French President Georges Pompidou in Paris. Picture: PA

The lead negotiator at that time was an Ulsterman, Sir Con O’Neill. For most of the previous decade, UK governments had been frustrated in their efforts to join the Common Market. The charms of Harold ­MacMillan and Harold ­Wilson failed to open doors or win the concessions thought necessary to appease domestic opinion.

In short, the view of the existing six member states was that ­anyone wanting to join must accept the rules as they stood. Opt-outs for ­special interests like the UK’s ­Commonwealth responsibilities were not on the table. This reality took a long time to dawn on ­British politicians. With the election of Edward Heath, a new determination to join the Community was introduced into government. It opened the way for an approach which O’Neill ­succinctly summed up with the advice to “swallow the lot and swallow it now”, which is exactly what the UK’s professional negotiators proceeded to do.

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There was, of course, the necessary political window-dressing and ceremonials, involving Heath and Georges Pompidou. In reality, however, the deal had been done behind the scenes. The UK achieved almost none of the concessions that had acted as obstacles in the past and the rest, as they say, is history.

As Professor Piers Ludlow, of the ­London School of Economics, wrote: “This inflexibility and unwillingness to give ground did not reflect ill-will or animosity … any more than the EU’s current rigidity reflects a desire to punish the UK … It is an inevitable result of the way a complex multilateral entity has to prioritise the needs and desires of insiders over and above those of outsiders, however well-liked.”

The same sentiment was expressed by the Irish prime ­minister, Leo Varadkar, when he stated rather smugly: “The EU is a family and families stick together.”

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The EU’s current negotiating ­position has been consistent with defending the ‘family’ interests against demands from a departing member which might inconvenience them, individually or collectively. That is not going to change.

Over the past year, it appeared negotiations were going nowhere. Then, quite suddenly, the three key barriers to progress were lifted – on money, freedom of movement and Ireland. The UK’s negotiators had “swallowed the lot” and UK politicians had to make the best of it. In fact, there was not a lot of pushback.

That is how we can expect negotiations to proceed in 2018. There will be plenty of posturing and transient dramas. However, in the boiler-room of negotiation, the overriding objective of O’Neill’s heirs will be to secure a deal which keeps the UK as close as possible to where it is now while respecting the fundamental instruction to leave the EU.

To achieve that reasonable ­outcome, there will be a lot more swallowing. The only alternative will not be some glorious diplomatic triumph, any more than it was for the two Harolds. It will be “no deal”, which all but the most one-dimensional Brexiteers see as folly and which no serious diplomat recognises as an option, any more than in 1972.

This likely scenario stands in ­contrast to more apocalyptic demands of people like Lord Adonis and Tony Blair, who want a full-scale assault on Brexit and a rerun of the referendum. Certainly, every aspect of Brexit should be subjected to scrutiny but the stated objective of reversing it should be treated with caution, particularly by Labour.

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It may be that a more active ­campaign by Labour and, even more so, the trade unions, would have tipped the referendum ­balance against Brexit. But that is past ­history. The fact is that one third of Labour (and Scottish Nationalist) voters supported withdrawal and there is little evidence they have changed their minds. A top-down instruction that they were wrong is unlikely to be persuasive.

The political class always makes the mistake of assuming the masses are as concerned with great issues as they are. In another context, the SNP’s deputy Westminster leader, Kirsty Blackman, debunked that illusion this week when she volunteered that most Scots “don’t give two hoots” about independence. By the same token, not everyone spends their waking hours worrying about Brexit.

Only a minority are zealots in either direction, while most are ­prepared to wait and see. An ­outcome that observes the democratic mandate while disrupting life as little as possible is likely to be broadly acceptable. The ­market is limited for a campaign based on the premise that the EU is such a wonderful institution we cannot contemplate life outside it. Just ask Vince Cable or, for that matter, Nicola Sturgeon who sacrificed 21 MPs to the fantasy that Brexit justified a second kick at her own ball.

Someone should also have a ­quiet word with Michael Russell, the grandly entitled Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place In Europe, whose Brexit doom-mongering is verging on the hysterical. Mr Russell has announced that “Scotland’s great brands” are at risk from Brexit because “Little Englanders … want Britain to be the only trademark from these islands – a Britain that never really existed, of course”. What on earth is the man talking about? In 20 years’ involvement in trade policy and promotion, I have never met anyone who wants “Britain to be the only trademark from these islands”. Maybe someone should remind Mr ­Russsell that the neighbour he is so anxious to insult is, by a country mile, Scotland’s biggest export market. We sell more to Yorkshire than to China and four times as much to the rest of the UK as to the EU.

As Ms Blackman said, most Scots “don’t give two hoots” about independence, so where is the moral justification for distorting every aspect of Scottish debate in order to manoeuvre for a day when 50 per cent plus one just might be conned into voting for it? You would think people who profess to be so anti-Brexit might understand the validity of that question.