Shall we take a gentle amble down memory lane, writes Jonathan Freedland in today’s “Guardian”, a nostalgic trip back to the heady days of the referendum campaign of 2016? So many sweet promises were murmured into our ear, it can be hard to remember them all. No talk then of shelling out £33m to settle a legal case with Eurotunnel or ferry contracts for companies with no ferries, or spending billions to prepare for the cataclysm of a no-deal departure.
No, back then it was all cash bonanzas of £350m a week and assurances that Brexit would be smooth and seamless – the Europeans needed us more than we needed them, after all – so that, by the time 23 June 2016 came around, voting leave seemed like a painless, risk-free option. Not only was there nothing to lose, there was so much to gain. And top of the list was a big, shiny trade deal with the United States of America.
“Within two years,” vowed the soon-to-be Brexit secretary, David Davis, a few short weeks after the vote, “we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.” A deal with the US, along with China, would “give us a trade area almost twice the size of the EU”, he gushed, apparently unaware that, under European law, it was illegal for a Britain that had not formally exited the EU to so much as enter talks with those nations, let alone sign an agreement with them.
A mere detail, as far as Davis and the Brexiters were concerned. They were itching to shake off the shackles of Brussels and run into the embrace of the “Anglosphere”, where our chief trading partners would no longer be those countries on our doorstep, but the English speakers of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, above all, the US. Who needed those minnow Europeans 22 miles across the Channel, when the largest economy in the world was there waiting for us, just 3,000 miles over the ocean?
Recall the fury of the leave crowd when Barack Obama dared puncture the Anglosphere fantasy by warning that a post-Brexit Britain would, in fact, be at “the back of the queue” for a trade agreement with the US, prompting Boris Johnson to reach for his racist dog-whistle and remind British voters that Obama was “part-Kenyan”. Recall too the needy relief of those same Brexiters when Michael Gove interviewed the newly elected Donald Trump and extracted a not-quite-promise that Britain and the US would “get something done very quickly”.
The truth is, the goal of a trade deal with the US never made economic sense. It was all about politics – the quest for a trophy that could be presented as a benefit of Brexit when, in fact, there are next to none. It didn’t stack up in June 2016, but it is even more absurd now – abandoning the largest ever free trade area, right where we live, for a dictator-coddling would-be autocrat thousands of miles away, who sees us not as a trusted ally but as prey.
I could not have said it better. As if Jonathan Freedland had been at the Café Landtmann so he puts his finger on the points we heard from Julia Lopez MP last night. He would have shaken his head in disbelief as we did. Mrs Lopez’ lecture, read at a breathtaking velocity, left us dizzy in our attempt to keep up with her. She presented us with the picture of the plucky Brit shouting “Freedom”, freedom from the shackles of the European bullies whose mentality is so alien to that of the “transactual” Briton, whatever “transactual” means. Her narrative was laced with wishful thinking and alternative facts about this wobbly construct known as the European Union, which makes it so much more desirable to leave before it all goes belly-up. It’s about getting back control, you know. We heard a lot about the democratic will of the people, the voter’s disillusionment with parliament and the sad fact that neither parliament nor the government has any idea what they really want. The word “incompetence” was mentioned by which she probably means her own government and here we re-connect with Jonathan Freedland’s analysis, she confessed that the UK has lost the knack over the last 40 years for negotiating trade-deals. She should know, after all Mrs Lopez is a member of the International Trade Committee.
Our members, as always displaying their deep knowledge of the subject, presented eloquently their questions to Julia Lopez, who bravely and patiently tried to answer them. For that she deserves our respect.
What followed was again the typical Café Landtmann hospitality, which our members gratefully accepted. They deserved it!