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It's time to make it clear to Britain's EU friends: yes, we really are leaving


Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA


Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA

Spending the past few days in Germany, I have found people here puzzled, offended, and feeling slightly bereft at the prospect of Britain's exit from the EU. They consider they are losing the one other major country that has a strong sense of financial and economic discipline, and they are right.

Most striking is the number of people, here and in other parts of Europe, who still ask if it will really happen. "Is opinion changing in Britain?" they ask. "When the negotiations become difficult, will the British lose heart? What about a second referendum, or an election bringing in a different government?"

To Germans, it seems so unimaginable and illogical to leave the EU that they cannot believe that rational people like us really will go through with it. They don't like my answer to these questions. I explain that even though I voted to 'Remain', I believe that what was done on June 23 last year cannot be undone. Yes, opinion on how it's all going will vary, but that's different from reversing it. A serious effort to reverse the referendum outcome would cause more division, bitterness and uncertainty than could ever be worth it.

Many Remainers like me want to unite behind making a success of leaving. And the only viable government in London is one now put together with the express purpose of delivering the exit.

The persistent doubts on the continent about Britain's determination to implement Brexit demonstrate a serious danger in the talks about to begin when Article 50 is invoked: that each side will underestimate the determination of the other.

In the EU, the small government majority in the Commons, the difficult numbers in the Lords, the fall in the pound, and the sight of Nicola Sturgeon in full rebellion can all be read as indicators of weaknesses in Britain's ability to stand firm. And that in turn can lead to a harder stance than is wise, such as Jean-Claude Juncker's ludicrous assertion that the request for the UK to pay €60bn is a "take it or leave it" demand. A misreading of Britain can lead to language and demands that harden opinion and reduce the chances of a deal that helps both sides.

Mirroring this risk is the danger that British opinion underestimates the determination of the EU governments and negotiators. Aren't Germans keen to keep selling Britain all those cars, and pragmatic enough to want to stay close to Britain? Yes, they are, but one of the few things that matters more to them is salvaging the unity and survival of the EU - for them a matter of existential importance.

Aren't there countries like Ireland that will desperately want a reasonable outcome to the negotiations? Yes, there are, thankfully, but there are also those such as France who see a one-off opportunity to dismember the City of London to the benefit of Paris, and which will go to the brink to achieve it. Misreading Europe could lead to miscalculations that harm businesses in Britain a great deal.

So, as David Davis and Michel Barnier prepare to square up to each other across the negotiating table, here are five tips to help them reach agreement.

1. The EU side needs to understand that Britain is now overwhelmingly likely to leave, come what may. Whether or not no deal is better than a bad deal, the reality is that offering only a bad deal will lead to no deal, rather than the UK staying in after all. The UK government needs to show it is planning seriously for that eventuality to give it credibility.

2. Both sides need to respect the red lines of the other. It is politically impossible for the UK to settle for anything less than control of its borders and being outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Conversely, the EU is not going to give Britain any deal more favourable than that signed up to by Norway and others who allow free movement from the EU in return for being in the single market.

3. Those red lines leave such a narrow space for the "bold and ambitious free trade agreement" that Prime Minister Theresa May has called for that some creative solutions are needed. For instance, instead of trying to control the number of EU migrants, the UK could control the conditions under which they work there - no benefits, and no crime or they're out. Otherwise give them permits to do the crucial work they do in the NHS and other services or industries.

4. Where creative solutions are hard, find creative processes to make breakthroughs. The negotiators could agree to set up a working group on how digital technology could be used in a new way of policing customs points without cumbersome new procedures. If they are deadlocked over the key and emotive issue of money, be ready to seek international arbitration of some parts of who owes what to whom.

5. Don't react in public to leaks and speculation from the other side. The European Commission will be continually reporting back to 27 governments. Much of what it says will end up in the media. The same will happen when updates are sent to devolved governments in the UK. If both sides denounce the contents of every leak, it will restrict the room for manoeuvre in the talks, entrench positions and make it harder to agree sensible compromises.

There is one other overarching point for both sides to remember, brought home by last week's murders in Westminster. The Berliners I have been watching strolling in the spring sunshine face the same threats that we do, and we will still be doing everything we can to help each other live in peace and freedom. Leaving the EU is like a divorce, but is a far cry from one where the participants never speak to each other again. We will still be one of the best friends of our former partners. Mrs May has made that point. It would be right for EU leaders to make it too.

Being clear about that is important in setting the right atmosphere. But it's vital to understand, too, that, yes, the UK really is leaving. (© Daily Telegraph, London)