The Spectator's Notes

Britain is making the same mistake it always does in negotiations with Europe

1 December 2018

9:00 AM

1 December 2018

9:00 AM

Theresa May, William Hague and others say that the EU will not want to trap Britain in the backstop because it is not in its interest. It will want to move to a free-trade agreement for its own benefit. If that is so, why is the backstop the thing above all others upon which the EU insists? Brexiteers must absolutely oppose the backstop because agreeing it would repeat Britain’s delusion in every European negotiation over nearly 50 years, which is that we should grab ‘practical’ advantages and concede ‘windy’ principles. This sounds good, but it invariably means that we are trapped later. The principles acquire legal force. Thus the ERM in the late 1980s sounded to many (though not to me) as if it would help stabilise the pound and hold down inflation, so we ignored the fact that it was Stage 1 of the Delors plan for Economic and Monetary Union. This was a disastrous destination not only for us, but for the entire continent. The EU has never recovered from it, and we flourished only because we — to use a currently popular phrase — ‘crashed out’. The backstop is being sold by our government as a mere insurance policy against a hard border between Northern Ireland, a sensible way of avoiding a flare-up. In fact, it is a constitutionally outrageous claim against part of our country, and therefore a threat to all of it, particularly to the union with Scotland. It also takes Britain hostage over any EU trade deal we try to make. The ransom demand will follow.

People are so bamboozled into thinking that Northern Ireland is a ‘special case’ that they do not see the preposterous arrogance of the backstop proposal. Think of a comparison. It is as if the United States said it would not do a trade deal with Canada unless special arrangements were made for America’s dealings with Quebec. And that if these arrangements were breached, Quebec’s border with the United States would disappear and the province would put up borders against the rest of Canada instead.

Is Emmanuel Macron the oddest leader in the EU? When he became President of France last year, he made a speech at Versailles to both houses of parliament calling for a renewal of ‘the spirit of conquest’. This year, commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, he seemed more inclined to invent a project for perpetual peace, like some 18th-century rationalist. In recent days, he has demanded our fish, decided that the gilets jaunes, who are rioting about his astonishing diesel price rises to save the planet, are really a ‘brown plague’, and welcomed a report which wishes to empty France’s museums of any treasures which originated in Africa, Oceania and anywhere else that can claim victim status, and return them thither. M. Macron is the anti-populists’ populist — over-reactive, shallow, denunciatory, hogging the limelight, instinctively hostile to the ordinary citizen. He is a sort of Donald Trump in reverse — pint-sized, Gallic, politically correct and énarque — but equally vain. At first he seemed to have some vision of a dynamic, modernised EU. Now his thoughts seem more like pointless surges of anger against the masses.

Here are a few considerations which make M. Macron’s idea of restitution questionable. Why should the current government of a particular place have an automatic right to an object just because it originated in that territory? (An extreme example of the problem might be returning treasures from Palmyra to the Islamic State.) What if the works went back to places which did not know how to look after them properly? What if their return reduces their accessibility for millions of people? Objects were often saved because only western collectors recognised them as art and removed them from places where they might have been neglected or even, for cultural, political or religious reasons, destroyed. The noble idea of preserving art in museums is a distinctively western one, especially our notion of a museum as ‘encyclopaedic’ and therefore global not national. Is not the spread of works of art itself an impressive part of the history of art, rather as Latin and Greek became central to our tradition of learning or as Kew Gardens collects seeds from all over the world? Is President Macron trying to score a point against ex-president Chirac, who set up the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, which attracts more than a million visitors a year and houses 450,000 objects now vulnerable to M. Macron’s reverse colonialism?

Lady Warsi and her all-party group on anti-Muslim hatred are trying to get the government to endorse their new, all-embracing definition of Islamophobia. The offence would be logged simply by the ‘victim’ claiming to have suffered it and would make any criticism of Islam or Muslims potentially criminal. At the weekend, I had it confirmed from the Home Office and the Communities Department (MHCLG) that the new definition would not be endorsed, because of worries about hindering free speech. On Tuesday, the group launched its new definition with Lord Bourne — comically titled the Minister for Faith and Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales — on the platform. He praised the group’s work on a definition and said that Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, was ‘very much signed up for this — and so is my boss, James Brokenshire’. This was the opposite of what I had just been told on much better authority than Lord Bourne’s. On these matters, government is besieged by pressure groups and must resist. A Minister for Faith doesn’t help.

Experts assure me that we shall shortly all be hearing about Collateralised Loan Obligations (CLOs). They are to corporate lending what Mortgage Backed Obligations (MBOs) were to mortgages. MBOs achieved unwelcome fame in 2008, when housing credit crunched. This time, it is corporate credit. Janet Yellen, until recently chairman of the Fed, has warned that the world is no readier than it was then. But so far politicians seem not to have noticed.

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