Slovenia, population 2 million people, now have more say about the future of Britain than the citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have. For that matter, so does Malta, population 423 thousand. This is the reality of the Brexit process.
In London, and in fairness also in Edinburgh, there is a lot of talk about new deals. About special relationships and new compacts. The Westminster political bubble tries to push back against “hard Brexit” with something called “soft Brexit”. In truth, like Donald Tusk said, there is no such thing as a soft or a hard Brexit. There is only Brexit.
Once Article 50 is invoked, then the clock starts ticking and after two years, Britain will fall out of the European Union and the European Customs Union. As Michael Dougan, professor of Law at Liverpool University explained in a YouTube video, the negotiations that take place after Article 50 is triggered is about the divorce settlement.
It’s about properties, wine cellars, cars, and how all of that is divided up. It’s nothing to do with the future relationship between the EU and the UK. That comes after the divorce settlement is finalised. That negotiation may take a decade, after the exit deal is agreed. If it is.
That divorce settlement will then go out to all the member states, and that’s when countries like Malta and Slovenia will have their say, and they have one vote – just like Germany and France. In this, little Malta is as powerful as France or Italy.
There is little appetite in Europe now for more fudges and more accommodation with Britain. The opt-outs and the exceptions were already an annoyance to many. Now Britain has made its choice, and it conducted a referendum campaign that didn’t improve European generosity, particularly since it was a referendum where the Britons made very clear what they thought of us. When Swedish mothers are attacked by racists in Yorkshire and told to go home, it moves beyond dark satire to sadness and resentment.
There is great sympathy for the countries within the UK who voted to remain. Scotland in particular would make a fine addition to the European Union. However, it will have to choose unions. The rest of the EU is no more prepared to accommodate special deals, exceptions, and caveats for Scots, than they are ready to do so with the whole UK. Not even the impressive Nicola Sturgeon can have it both ways, and the country will have to chose. If it chooses independence, then it is welcome into the European Union. If it chooses the UK, then it leaves with the UK.
As for the rest, little Malta and Slovenia will, along with Sweden and Poland and Germany deliver its verdict on a Brexit deal in two years and a few months time. And that’s a verdict that the UK will not be invited to share in.
Little Malta will decide the future of 60 million people, and it will decide entirely along its own national interests. As will we all. This is the essence of “take back control” and why it’s such a bitter irony. In taking back control, the Brexiters will have given up all control of this process, and all control of the path to its own future.
As Christopher Silver wrote in his excellent column at Newsnet Scotland, British exceptionalism may stub its toe on the smallest members of the European Union. The dreams of a revived British imperial spirit will be shown to have feet of clay against the smallest of us. And that is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of all – that liberal and open Britain will be an isolated resentful Atlantic enclave.
For an Anglophile like me, who genuinely love England and Britain, and who have long nourished a dream of returning there, that I’m forced by events to think like this, and write something like this, is the saddest part of it all. It’s like giving up hope for your once best friend who has fallen in with the wrong crowd.