The Tory party conference rhetoric made for queasy reading. Every European country has its share of politicians rubbishing foreigners, but no sitting government has gone as far as this: openly targeting legal, working, taxpaying non-nationals.
The prime minister doesn’t seem to realise – or care – that she is worsening the UK’s chances of a good European Union deal; though wisely Theresa May has picked a like-minded country, Denmark, to visit when she first ventures abroad after telling Europeans how she really feels about us.
Here’s an EU country that for the last decade or so has offered the same anti-foreign rhetoric that the Tories are now delivering. It’s also a country that has also opposed what it loves to call EU “meddling”. A country that has adopted the whole set of EU opt-outs, just like the UK. A country that last December called a referendum on EU cooperation (in police matters) and had its population say “no thanks”. A country that long has called itself the UK’s best ally.
And yet, in her talks with the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, May will receive an unequivocal “no” to her pleas for an EU deal without free movement of people.
She could brush it off with the same explanation that parts of the British media are serving up: “It’s all about punishing the British.” Or she could, after having repeatedly (if also surprisingly vaguely) stated her government’s view of what it intends to achieve from Brexit, belatedly start paying attention to the other side of this deal she seeks.
Her government could begin by acknowledging something that it must know but rarely admits – the other 27 EU countries have national interests too. But there’s more, and this is vital for her to understand: the other EU countries believe it is in their national interest to safeguard the single market. Why? Because of jobs. Millions of jobs have been created because European companies have been able to buy and sell freely to the richest consumers in the world, in the largest market in the world.
Creating the single market was a painful process. Getting 28 countries to agree on everything from safety standards of hairdryers to banks’ capital levels was tough. A lot of politicians had to return home to their voters and admit that things would have to change.
Allowing one country today to dictate its own conditions while being part of this market would probably lead to the unravelling of the whole package of hard-won compromises. And that is not going to happen. This is what Angela Merkel is saying when she says that the UK will not be part of the single market without free movement of people. And this is exactly what the Danish prime minister – only recently the best ally to the UK – will say in Copenhagen to Theresa May.
The UK government so far has banked on EU companies lobbying their national governments to keep full British access to the market so that their business won’t be disrupted. But by targeting non-British nationals, the May government is already disrupting these very same companies. How are they going to find employees who want to be posted to the UK now?
Also, let’s not forget that there are other EU companies lobbying for the opposite, hoping Brexit will offer them new and exciting opportunities. The Belgians or Dutch would love the 200,000 or so jobs that the Japanese are talking about moving to the continent. France would love to see Airbus wing production return to the homeland. Dublin can’t wait to welcome Lloyd’s of London.
This has nothing to do with punishing the British. It’s about jobs and national interest. May, studying her counterparts more closely, might discover that no other European nation shares the British belief that a country will do better on its own. Therefore defending the single market becomes a national interest.
It is, after all, this great economic asset that makes the US, China and Russia take notice of what we Europeans think. So the Danish will not get a better deal on police cooperation than the rest of us, even if there’s a Danish referendum backing that demand. The Swiss won’t get full access to the single market without accepting free movement of people. Hungary won’t be allowed to refuse solidarity over refugees, referendum or not.
And the UK will not be allowed access to the single market without adhering to its rules (sorry, prime minister, but yes, those would be EU rules).
Just like the rest of us.