Britain’s advocates of an EU exit have skillfully lowered expectations, writes Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.
Last year, they told voters Britain could stay in the single market even if it left the European Union. No matter that Norway and Switzerland had been denied that privilege. No matter that EU officials warned there would be no such deal for Britain either. The likes of David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, who are now responsible for Brexit, maintained that the EU would come around. It was on that promise that British voters opted to leave.
When it turned out the EU meant it and remaining in the single market was not an option, leavers started talking about “access” to the market.
German exporters, blessed with supernatural lobbying powers that somehow failed to soften European sanctions on Russia, would persuade the EU of the mutual interest in such an arrangement.
But they didn’t. By prioritizing immigration control, Britain ruled out even a Norway- or Switzerland-style deal. As far as the rest of Europe is concerned, there can be no free movement of capital, goods and services if there isn’t at least something approaching free movement for people as well.
Now the leavers have fallen back on a formal trade relationship with the EU.
Britain would do business with Europe as Canada does, as if geography had been abolished and the access terms enjoyed by a nation 4,000 kilometers away would serve for a nation whose physical and economic orientation is to the continent.
Ministers are even attempting to normalize the idea of an exit without any trade deal. Davis has described this as “not harmful”. (Economists and exporters disagree.) Johnson has said such a hard exit would not be “as apocalyptic as some people like to pretend”.
From no interruption of trade to a “not apocalyptic” change, Britain has come a long way.
Ganesh rightly berates Brexiteers for continuously talking down the terms on which Britain will leave:
At every stage, they overpromise. At every stage, reality finds them out. At every stage, they spin the new bottom line as something they half-expected all along and as nothing to fear.
The tragedy is that British voters were told, time and again, that they should expect to end up exactly where they have if they voted to leave: with no leverage and no prospect of a special arrangement.
The Brexiteers didn’t listen, because they never took an interest in the EU.
Instead, they peddled what Ganesh describes as the “mystical belief that the EU will unpick its fundamental principles to accommodate Britain, that the whole world will make exceptions for the nation of Shakespeare and the spinning jenny.”
Those times have gone.