We helped save Europe: now Europe could save us from Brexit

Observer |

‘A visitor from Mars would assume that the UK is under attack from a hostile power seeking to destroy our economy and many of our national institutions … But there is no hostile foreign power. The threatened damage is entirely self-inflicted.”

This forceful reflection on the state of the nation comes from Sir Brian Unwin, former president of the European Investment Bank, one of the many EU institutions from whose work the British economy has benefited through our membership.

Sir Brian was involved in the occasional negotiation with Brussels, not least on behalf of Mrs Thatcher during the EEC budget-rebate squabble during the early 1980s. The Treasury was never wholly in love with the rest of the EU, but it does know where this country’s bread is buttered, and it can recognise a suicide note when it sees one.

Among the chaotic group of cabinet ministers who are concerned with negotiating Brexit there appears to be one grown-up minister who recognises the absurdity of it all, and that is the chancellor, Philip Hammond. His desperate attempts to seek “transitional” arrangements to ease the pain appear to be gaining support.

However, the unfortunate truth is that, even if he manages to win over his hard-Brexiter colleagues – which is a big “if” – the damage is being done now. There is simply too much uncertainty for business and the City, with investment decisions being delayed, or investment plans being relocated to within the single market. And our treasured institutions, including the health service, higher education establishments and the arts, are already facing recruitment problems.

The transitional strategy aims to retain the benefits of the customs union and the single market beyond the current two-year negotiation period, but there cannot be any serious guarantee of success.

In a Radio 4 discussion with the modern historian Peter Hennessy last week, Tony Blair said he had found the British civil service to be good at managing, but not at changing things. Well, it is now tasked with the most monumental change imaginable in our relations with the rest of Europe, and, frankly, it is finding the management of this well-nigh impossible.

As a heavy realisation about Brexit descends, I find that a popular question arises. Whom do you blame the most: David Cameron? Boris Johnson? Jeremy Corbyn?

But the most convincing answer has been provided by the former Conservative MP Matthew Parris. The culprit is the Conservative party. Parris accuses the party of being criminally irresponsible in landing Britain with the triggering of article 50 without the vaguest plan, and with Brexit meaning different things to different party members.

By contrast, when the question came up during the early years of the post-1997 Blair/Brown Labour government, a quite phenomenal degree of work went into the pros and cons of putting the pound into the single currency. No fewer than 20 volumes of study and analysis lay behind the famous “five tests” exercise, which preceded the decision not to join.

In comparison with the implications of that decision, the intention – one can hardy call it a “plan” – to leave the EU is a thousand times more complex, yet analysis and study were conspicuous by their absence, with the chaotic results that now bedevil the British polity.

Can the Brexit culprit be the very same Conservative party whose prime minister Harold Macmillan never recovered from having his application to join the community turned down by General de Gaulle, his wartime friend, in 1963? And of Sir Edward Heath, who had worked for Macmillan on that earlier attempt, and who finally succeeded in securing our entry in 1973?

It is a popular view that Cameron’s handling of the referendum ranks him as the most disastrous British prime minister since Lord North, who lost the American colonies.

However, there was no chance that those colonies could ever be regained. Whereas I firmly believe, despite all the propaganda to the contrary, that it is not too late to reverse the referendum decision made by 37% of the electorate, many of them basing their judgment on outright lies perpetrated by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Which brings us to the latest outbreak of British jingoism, prompted by the release of the film Dunkirk. The fantasists who “want our country back” nurture a blinkered view of the second world war, in which the retreat from Dunkirk was somehow a victory, and we won the war without the aid of the Commonwealth, the US and – yes – Soviet Russia.

Be that as it may, we certainly made a major contribution to the defeat of Hitler. And we played a huge role in rebuilding the war-ravaged continent of Europe, even if we were slow to sign up to what eventually became the EU.

It is surely payback time. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron know full well what folly Brexit would be for both Britain and the continent. Not to put too fine a point upon it, we made our wartime and postwar contribution to rescuing and rebuilding Europe and now we need to be rescued from our folly in return.

Obviously, we have to wait for the result of the September German elections. But what is urgently needed is an act of consummate statesmanship in which our fellow EU members call urgent discussions with what is left of the British government and make an offer calculated to save us.

This could then be put to parliament and the electorate, who are likely to be increasingly aware of the damage the mere thought of Brexit is causing.

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