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27 January 2020

Evening Call: Leo Varadkar tells unpalatable truths

The EU is bigger and scarier than the UK. And that has implications for trade negotiations. 

By Jonn Elledge

I’m slightly wary of making predictions, on the fairly sensible grounds that when I do I am almost always wrong (“No, honestly, Hillary’s going to walk it”). But I do feel fairly confident in the following: somewhere in tomorrow’s papers, you will find someone being absolutely furious about the gall of that upstart Leo Varadkar.

The Irish Prime Minister’s latest crime? To make a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. After talks with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Varadkar told the BBC that the EU was bigger and scarier than the UK, and so was likely to come out on top of the trade negotiations that will dominate Britain’s foreign policy for the next few months.

“The European Union is a union of 27 member states. The UK is only one country,” he told Laura Kuenssberg. “And we have a population and a market of 450 million people. The UK, it’s about 60[m]. So if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team?”

The inevitable angry columns tomorrow are likely to mention the fact that Varadkar is fighting an election, which gives him an interest in talking tough to the UK – but that does not change the fact that he is entirely correct. Certain shouty Brexiteers may have convinced themselves that the EU needs a deal more than the UK, on the grounds that it sells more to us than we do to them; but in doing so they’ve conflated absolute figures with relative ones. As a proportion of GDP, around 12 per cent of the UK economy is linked to exports to the EU, compared to just 3 per cent the other way around.

That means that Brussels needs a deal less than we do. And so, realpolitik being what it is, the EU is far more likely to get its way in the upcoming trade deal than Britain is. (I can already feel some of my more Brexit-y, albeit universally polite, intelligent and good-looking, readers itching to reply to this. So here’s a longer explanation from the BBC, which may prove helpful.)

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There must be at least a chance that a government, faced with a choice between a cliff-edge that’ll making Britons poorer and a softer Brexit, will opt for the latter. That’s surely even more likely now than it was a few weeks ago because, with a healthy majority, the government will have nobody to blame for any Brexit-related hardship inflicted on the general public.

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It’s been widely noted that, in four days’ time, Britain will leave the EU and yet suddenly we’re barely talking about Brexit. For a government about to back down, that silence may prove rather useful.

Those close to the government maintain that the one thing it absolutely won’t soften its line on at this point is Brexit. Perhaps. But, at risk of another prediction about which I may be catastrophically wrong, I am unconvinced.

Good day for…

Ed Davey, who, according to YouGov polling seen exclusively by the New Statesman, is the clear leader in the race for the Lib Dem leadership. His support stands at 52 per cent, compared to 24 for his closest challenger, Layla Moran. More from Stephen here.

Bad day for…

British diplomacy. A concerning headline from the Mirror reads, “Beatrice and Eugenie ‘could step into Harry and Meghan’s roles’ after Megxit” which sounds more like a plot from The Windsors than a strategy to shore up the Commonwealth.

As if that wasn’t enough, yesterday the Observer ran a piece with the headline “Farewell Europe” imposed on a map showing these islands being ripped away from the continent – including the southern three-quarters of Ireland which is very much remaining tied to it. Oh dear.

Quote of the day

“Can I just say how uncomfortable I am about that just at the moment?”

Labour leadership contender Keir Starmer, when asked by BBC Radio 5 Live’s Nicky Campbell whether it was “racist to say there are too many foreigners in Britain”.

There is an argument that the next thing Starmer said – that his mother-in-law had just received “incredible care” from “people of every nationality” in an NHS hospital – is a bit utilitarian, as if migrants are valid because they are useful to us. Nonetheless, it is quite nice hearing a politician answer a question about immigration with (I paraphrase) “don’t frame it like that”, isn’t it?

Everybody’s talking about…

Holocaust Memorial Day. A lot of people, Jewish and otherwise, have been discussing this deeply upsetting but massively important topic, but here are two things especially worthy of your attention.

The Times’ Danny Finkelstein has spent the last week tweeting the story of his mother’s release from Belsen, 75 years on. And secondly a stat so shocking it made me catch my breath, courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood: 90 per cent of Europe’s Jewish children were murdered in the Shoah. “It’s hard to move past a number like that,” he writes, “but vital to remember it.

Everybody should be talking about…

For once, I’m honestly not sure there’s anything more important we could be talking about. But something I think we could do is to recall these stories when we talk about refugees today.

The horror of the Holocaust lies not just in the Nazis’ treatment of those they killed, but also in the way the allies turned away people who needed their help. The lessons of the Holocaust are not just historical.


Questions? Comments? Drop me an email.

For those of you who aren’t on Twitter, an announcement: this is my last week on staff at the New Statesman, and while I am delighted to say I’ll continue to write for a title I have been proud and lucky to call home for six years, Friday’s will also be my last Evening Call. Working here has given me many great opportunities. But writing this newsletter, and hearing from a selection of you guys every day, has been one of the best of all. Thank you.

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