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The EU knows Theresa May is deluded on Brexit. And soon the Tories will

May 4, 2017 5:23 PM
By Nick Clegg in The Guardian
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Nick CleggWhile the EU27 defend their national interests, the Brexiteers destroy ours: their vision of economic utopia cannot fend off the cold facts of economic reality

Stilted, awkward, tense. Reports of last week's dinner between Theresa May and Jean Claude Juncker were revealing. It doesn't surprise me that the Brexit talks have started on an awkward footing. The Conservatives, after all, are imperiously conducting a general election as if it were no more than a coronation: hardly an atmosphere conducive to the subtlety, realism and humility necessary to persuade the rest of the EU to give us a good deal. The leaked reports suggest that No 10 is treating the 27 EU states it will be negotiating with much like it treats officials in the Home Office - to be barked at, rather than won over.

What is often forgotten in the self-absorbed world of British politics and British media is that foreigners read our press too. EU leaders read the puffed-up anti-European bombast in the Conservatives' house magazine, the Daily Mail. They read about the prime minister's meaningless boast that a landslide majority for the Conservatives, neutering all meaningful parliamentary opposition, will "strengthen her hand" in the Brexit talks. They hear the robotic assertion from the government that Brexit must mean no to the single market, no to the customs union, and no to a level playing field of common rules. And then - incredulously - they note the claim from David Davis that the UK will enjoy the "exact same benefits" after Brexit.

What is also often overlooked in Westminster is that we will be negotiating with 27 proud, sovereign governments and parliaments - not a colourless team of stateless bureaucrats in Brussels. May might choose to dismiss everyone who stands in her way as "citizens of nowhere", but she would be making another grave error if she fails to understand that for much of the rest of Europe, the survival of the EU is a visceral, existential question. They are sad that we are leaving - they would have us back if we changed our mind - but faced with May's needlessly belligerent "hard" Brexit, the rest of the EU will do what we would do in their place: defend their national interests.

And the rest of the EU also knows this: however much May declares that she could live with "no deal", however much the Brexit commentariat makes the evidence-free claim that severing our links with Margaret Thatcher's single market will usher in an economic utopia, the cold hard facts of economic reality will soon intrude.

Voters are already aware that the cost-free Brexit they were promised is unravelling. The £350m a week for the NHS, the VAT cut and the instant solution to immigration have all evaporated. Instead there is the chilling grip of a growing Brexit squeeze on people's income and public services.

Sterling is about 17% lower against the euro than it was in summer of 2015 (a lesser devaluation, of 14.3%, undid Harold Wilson's government), which has led to inflation rising from around zero to 2.3% today. With average earnings continuing to stall, the cost of living is rising as we are forced to pay more for imported goods. Prices on supermarket shelves will go up. Energy bills will increase. And the cost of holidays this summer will be higher too, with everything from ice creams to hotel rooms noticeably more expensive.

Brexit will damage public services too. The Office for Budget Responsibility's growth estimates, coupled with the chancellor's revelation in November that he will have to borrow about an extra £15bn a year from next year to plug the Brexit gap, amounts to a £59bn Brexit dent in the public finances over five years. That's money that could have been spent on hospitals, schools and social care. The chancellor will have no choice but to cut elsewhere or raise taxes to provide our public services with the additional funding they desperately need. Whatever his choice, it's you - the taxpayer - who will foot the government's Brexit bill.

These remorseless facts will, in the end, catch up with the Conservatives. The rest of the EU knows that, and they have time on their side. No wonder they mutter that there is something faintly "delusional" about this government