Greece and France have defied the eurosceptics

Both countries voted for pro-European politics and confounded the anti-EU right.

So what does the eurosceptic elite, which controls most of the media, the governing party and has its representatives in both the Lib Dems and Labour, do now? For months, we have been told that "Eurogeddon" or "Grexit" was just round the corner. Lucky Britain with its pound and made-in-Britain recession was not involved as the dreadful Europeans, with the deadweight euro around their necks, would sink below the waves. The best and the brightest of monolingual English commentators flooded into the Plaka in Athens to sip their ouzo with their columns already written, explaining how the Greeks pulled the plug on the euro. The Greek people have let them down.

In the French election, the left-wing windbag, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was given star treatment by the BBC and English papers, who love a leftie as long as he beats up on Brussels. Then it was the turn of Alexis Tsipras. The Financial Times cleared away its usual stable of Nobel-prize winners on its comment pages to welcome the populist posturing of the new anti-Brussels oracle of Delphi. He said Greece would stay in the euro but not meet a single condition of continued EU help.

Both Mélenchon and Tsipras have a critique of the way the economy has been run in their countries and, more broadly, in Europe in recent years. They are right to reject the recession-generating austerity of British and German conservatives. But it is one thing to denounce 1930s economics, another to come up with policy that makes sense to a democratic electorate. In both France and Greece, voters had a second chance over multi-round elections to reflect and, in the end, they voted to reject the false prophets who offered simplistic solutions that could not work. They also rejected the advice from British pundits like Norman Lamont, Nigel Farage, David Owen, and nearly all press commentators, who insisted that the euro was all a dreadful mistake and the sooner Greece was booted out, the better.

There was generalised talk about the need for a referendum, promoted by both Tories and Labour, as if a single plebiscite (on what question exactly is never made clear) would settle the Europe question once and for all in British politics. Among our political and media elites there was an almost Trotskyist fervour of “the worse the better” as if a collapse into chaos of banks closing down and the euro being forcibly converted into drachmas or pesetas would be a ritual purging of Europe into a new entity approved by the bankers and bank-rollers of entrenched British euroscepticism.

But as so often, Europe failed to conform to the eurosceptic script. Both the Greeks and the French voted for pro-European middle-of-the-road politics. Neither the victory for the left in France or New Democracy’s win in Greece solves any of the underlying problems both countries face. Hard decisions have to be taken and there will be social unrest just as there was a year ago in Britain or as we suffer when doctors and bus drivers go on strike. There is no Brussels fix or German cash cow that can solve the democratic capitalist world’s core problem, one neither the US nor Europe will admit, namely that debt-driven economics and state-financing no longer works.

But just as the US keeps rolling on, so does Europe. Britain can join in a conversation about what needs to be done with the new MPs in Paris and Athens. Or we can believe the Greeks and French have made a terrible mistake and keep pumping eurosceptic iron, hoping the final crisis is only around the next corner.

UK Independence Party leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.