Arguments for Brexit always held that Britain would get a soft deal, but it is about to learn some hard truths
Published 15/07/2016 | 02:30
For much of the last 43 years the British relationship with the European Union has been presented as fundamentally adversarial in nature - from Margaret Thatcher winning the rebate, to 'Up Yours Delors' [the famous headline from 'The Sun', calling on its readers to tell Jacques Delors - then President of the European Commission - "where to stuff his ECU", the single currency that would become the euro] and a decade of battles to escape the currency, the Schengen Area and the Social Chapter.
However, despite all the fights over federalist ambitions, Britain still remained a member of the EU club, which explains why - often through gritted teeth - Europe's leaders gave the UK such privileged status, granting it a series of opt-outs from the project.
In February this year, as David Cameron conducted his 'renegotiation' with Europe, there was a widespread feeling in Brussels that the EU had once again bent over backwards to accommodate the Brits, offering a semi-legal "benefits brake" that would have reduced payouts to EU workers.
They stopped short of giving Cameron his desired 'caps' on EU migrant workers but even at that late stage Cameron could have walked away from the negotiating table, plunging the talks into crisis and - just perhaps - forging a better deal.
But as we know, Downing Street chose not to do that, betting instead that a snap June referendum, backed by a fig-leaf deal, would be enough to get them over the line. As the now former prime minister knows, that was a gross miscalculation.
Unfortunately for Theresa May, her predecessor's failed gamble has backed Britain into a very nasty corner whose nastiness - to judge by the comments of politicians and campaigners on both sides of the post-Brexit debate - is still to be fully appreciated.
The June 23 vote heralds a step-change from what went before, because it means that Britain and the EU are no longer just seen to be in an adversarial relationship; they really are now at odds, with conflicting interests, starting with the declaration of Article 50.
Until Brexit, the nastiness of negotiations between the UK and EU was ultimately limited by the knowledge that, at end of it all, Britain would still be in the club, playing its key role of strategic bridge to the US and release-valve for the intense Franco-German relationship. A deal had to be done, and it often was. But not any more.
When May invokes Article 50, as European capitals are already putting her under increasing pressure to do, a very different negotiating process begins than the one that unfolded in February.
In those talks Mr Cameron still had the choice to walk away when he didn't like the deal; under Article 50, May emphatically does not have that choice, unless she wants a disorderly exit from the EU, casting the UK into the economic wilderness with no trade deal at all.
Underlying the arguments for Brexit has always been the presumption that the EU 27 will give Britain a decent deal - they wouldn't dare not to - but the risk for Britain (and May herself, who will now have to meet public expectations based on this assumption) is that that turns out to be a fallacy.
It is striking, even after Brexit, how little effort both the British media and its politicians have made to understand the positions and emotions of their soon-to-be-former EU colleagues and now adversaries at the negotiating table.
Given Britain's economic and strategic heft and the flaws and divisions among the 27, a deal can be done with the EU, but it cannot be born of wishful thinking.
As Sun Tzu wrote in the 'Art of War', if you know the enemy and know yourself, "you need not fear the result of a hundred battles", but if you know yourself but not the enemy, "for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat".
Just take the issue of the free movement of people, which will be at the heart of the coming divorce talks, but which is viewed in much of Britain as some federalist shibboleth that any fool can see is entirely outdated and unsustainable.
But that is not how the EU sees it, and under Article 50, they have the whip hand. For the vast majority of the EU 27, free movement of people is indivisible from their idea of Europe - for poorer nations, it is a key reason they aspired to join the EU, while for richer nations it is fundamental to the notion of a post-nationalist European ideal that they believe has delivered 70 years of peace.
At an intuitive, emotional level, Brits mostly don't understand this.
An island mentality and the wartime role as unconquered liberator is often cited as the historical reason why Britain has always been the odd-man-out in the European Union, but despite the Erasmus Programme, Easyjet, the Chunnel and the Open Skies, that disconnect continues to this day.
For millions of Europeans the principle of free movement and the Schengen Area is not abstract, or negative, it is the very oxygen of the Union, a very physical incarnation of its political and philosophical raison d'etre. Every day, 1.7 million workers cross borders in Europe to go to work, they speak each other's languages and far more than us, mix, marry and meld across a single landmass. Put another way, free movement is an emotional issue for them, as it is a negative one for many Brits.
So when it comes to accessing the single market, the quid pro quos that Europe will demand for offering a post-EU Britain the right to curb such a fundamental principle will surely reflect that.
Peter Foster is Europe Editor of The Telegraph