View from Brussels: David Cameron deserves some sympathy
In a dank British railway station waiting room, Pelle Neroth reads the best book on the Brexit debacle yet
I have been reading a book on Brexit*. I had time to kill. There was the unsurprising rail strike, dank lighting in the waiting room and duct tape everywhere. Back home again: welcome to Britain.
My European Union, as a journalist, has been a network of networks, a stimulating place for bringing thoughts and ideas together, and with a genuine pluralism and meritocracy inside the institutions. Many power centres, not at all the monolith of Brexiteer myth. Which makes it hard to cover: you don't know where the locus of control lies. Or when the big things will happen. One of the nice quotes in this book is the line, attributed to US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, that diplomacy is like jazz, endless improvisations around a theme. In EU politics, deals in the Council coalesce only at the last moment. Everything is fluid and big things are traded away at four in the morning.
What is Europe? I have often maintained it's international diplomacy and international business, merely given a convenient physical location so that it happens in one place. Brussels. How can you take your leave from that? Brexit is a self-inflicted political Dunkirk. Britain holds few cards but behaves as if it holds all the cards. Tony Blair commented on the strategy, quoting a line from the film Blazing Saddles: “Put your hands up or I will blow my brains out”.
That’s why I got so annoyed when I started reading the initial, laddish chapters of All Out War, with its tired old WW2-style title. Was this really the book of the year? Dominic Cummings, Brexit strategist, anti-hero of the first section of Tim Shipman’s book, may have understood modern political communications – he is dismissive of the paleosceptics and their obsession with the minutiae of the superstate's alleged growth in documents that only the fanatic find interesting – but he was annoying, a young man on the make in the Westminster Village who saw what he wanted to see about “Europe”. He coins the demonically clever slogan “Take back control” which every dissatisfied person out there can interpret for their own purpose. Take back control from your unhappy marriage, from that person who has taken your job, your boss who oppresses you. Or the EU. But the EU is only one cause out there. It's globalisation, Chinese manufacturing. Thatcher. The pill. Modern life.
But I realised that the author, the Sunday Times’s political editor, wasn't just telling the story of Cumming's heroic journey but writing an in-depth story of how it happened, from all sides, I found it a riveting read. And as I got in deeper and read about everyone’s different motivations, it made me think about my own anti-Brexit stance. I suppose everyone has their own Europe. I just mentioned mine. Leading Brexiteer Michael Gove’s fishmonger parents lost their business because of the Common Fisheries Policy. And Boris Johnson made a good argument when he said that his deciding factor was his wife's, a high-powered lawyer's, complaints about the European Court of Justice's amazing power grabs. I know about those power grabs, and she has a very good point.
David Cameron was thought by many, not least Boris Johnson, to be a lightweight, the man who introduced the concept of ‘chillaxing’ to Downing Street, but, to give him his due, he actually had a more realistic understanding of the problems facing the EU than his fellow leaders when he introduced his reform proposals. He correctly identified immigration as the major concern among the public and that that issue would definitely push the British towards the exit.
But he had no friends when he went on his begging tour in early 2016, even among usual allies. The Swedish government consists of Open Borders fanatics. The Poles and Czechs, incredibly hostile to non-European immigration, were equally hostile to the notion of Britain limiting numbers of their own citizens coming to Britain to work as plumbers or fruit-pickers. Angela Merkel wanted Britain in but was hardly going to back down on her ‘refugees welcome’ policy. And whatever she said in private to Cameron she undermined by blithely telling Germans and the world to look forward to a non-Christian European future. The French had no problems: they just want Britain out, on any pretext.
It is true that, whatever the cultural consequences of immigration, a welfare state is not compatible with completely open borders unless all the arrivals immediately pay in more in taxes than they and their dependents take out in benefits. That has always been an Achilles heel of Europe, but now you have the population explosion in Africa, and wars in the Middle East also pile on the pressures.
It is a real issue, especially in countries such as the UK where slack, or generous, conditions apply, for access to welfare state benefits. In that sense, Dominic Cummings’s “350 million back for the NHS if the UK left” was effective at highlighting the real dilemma, whether the actual figure was accurate or not.
It was painful to read how Cameron was scapegoated and isolated at the crucial EU summit for being the bearer of inconvenient truths. He completely lost his bid to up-end one of the EU’s founding freedoms, the freedom to move, and so his prediction proved correct: the British moved towards the exit.
I still think Britain is going to lose out when it leaves the top table and becomes a decision follower rather than a decision maker, when its depleted manufacturing industry wants to sell back into Europe. It is all a bit tragic.
*All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class by Tim Shipman