View from Brussels: Brexit blues

On this whole leave affair, Pelle Neroth just wants to close his eyes for two years and only open them at the other end. This dripfeed of withdrawals and retreats is just torture....

The news about Brexit is coming thick and fast, and it is all terribly gloomy.

The European Medicines Agency is going to Amsterdam, and the European Banking Authority to Paris. The vote was in the Council of Ministers last Tuesday. In both cases, the front runners were tied. The final result was by lot. How the fates fall.

Think of all the hard work by the banking and pharmaceutical industries, two areas where Britain is still world-class, to bring those bodies to London. Things are so infinitely hard to build, so ludicrously easy to lose. It took decades for Britain to amass its clout in Brussels, which allowed it to stay out of the euro and avoid the Schengen rules: privileged treatment. On top of that, British diplomats snagged, not one, but two, important EU authorities.

Do you think Paris will try to use the EBA to weaken the London’s role as financial capital? You bet it will. London is almost certain to lose its ‘passporting’ rights, making London far less attractive for any bank that does a lot of trade with the EU.

Another bit of bad news: Ministers committed strategic errors when they agreed to the multi-billion Franco-Chinese deal to build Hinkley Point C, warned the Commons Public Accounts Committee last week, and the taxpayers will be ponying up for a long time ahead.

One of my regular correspondents, who keeps me briefed on events in the nuclear world, tells me about the utter corruption in the nuclear industry. Lobbyists push ideas that will never, ever fly, like fusion. Investment in that pie-in-the-sky idea, consultancy fees and inquiries and whatnot, is just wasted money, he says. The rewards of running a nuclear power plant are enormous, over 60 years. The amount of skulduggery is commensurate. (I will have to take his word for it). He believes ministers are simply intellectually under-equipped to make informed decisions about the complicated science and technology issues involved. And of course, the Brexit affair is tugging at their attention. And will future nuclear collaboration be harmed by Brexit? Britain doesn’t produce enough nuclear engineers for a start.

And another: Britain is losing its only judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

And yet another. Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, famously said in July that the sums that Brussels demanded as the exit fee for Britain to get out of the EU extortionate. “I think ‘to go and whistle’ is an entirely appropriate expression.” Now May has doubled her offer to 40 billion pounds, but EU diplomats are reported to have countered that this is not enough if Britain wants to move ahead on trade talks in December. Who holds the cards? I think the answer is obvious. There are thousands of ultra-clever people working in the European Commission. By comparison, the British Cabinet seems to be like amateur hour.

And yet the clock ticks: Big business is champing at the bit. Jasmine Whitehead, chief executive of the pro-London business group London First, says: “We did a survey of 1,000 businesses, which revealed 40 per cent have got investment decisions and hiring decisions on hold,” she said. “If they got clarity on what this transition deal would look like, they would be able to start to unlock those frozen decisions.”

I walk around a medium-sized town in the South of England, one of the country’s wealthiest. Several shops in the High Street have closed. Homeless people sit under the mock Tudor facade of the town’s Boots. The muggy, mild weather makes everything worse, and is a reminder that global warming is happening – on top of Britain’s every other problem. I have coffee with a policeman and drugs counsellor from North America, who has a contract as a consultant with the county police. We talk about the British approach to Europe; and maybe to new ideas generally.

A dynamic Yank who wants to change things for the better, he went down to Portugal to assess their drugs harm reduction plan. Addicts are given free, clean heroin, and are allowed to get high in a nice government clinic with comfortable sofas. No one dies from dirty needles or overdoses; it kills off the middle man and drugs smugglers. And heroin addicts no longer need to commit thefts and burglaries to fund their habit. Crime levels have gone down. What is more, more people have been moved off heroin than ever happened when a hardline approach prevailed. He tried to sell his idea to his police bosses in England. He said, let’s be pragmatic, let’s try the Portuguese method. No chance: “They are a bunch of dagoes,” they basically said. “What do they know about anything?”

One of the best things about Europe was looking at how other countries did things. The Brexiteeers emphasised harmonisation and stifling of innovation. But my Brussels was a place of diversity, an endless looking over at what everyone else did. Also, it was like going to university after having been in a small sixth form. You might have been the best in your class back home, but at university you were just one of the crowd of brilliant people. There are 500 million Europeans, many living in societies more successful than Britain (and even the less wealthy ones, like Portugal, might have had good policy ideas.) And by and large, they were not arrogant about it.

But I sensed Britain never bothered to learn the dynamic of the game as played in Europe, the tricks they had that could be learned. That is why this whole Brexit business kind of reminds me of the entries Britain puts up for the Eurovision Song Contest, or the national football teams that go to Europe. Every time, Britain/England performs worse than expected, outfoxed and outperformed. And every time, the British public are equally surprised.

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