If Brexit means Brexit, the UK Can’t Block an EU Army

“This is not going to happen. We are full members of the EU and we will go on resisting any attempt to set up a rival to NATO.”

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon’s response to proposals for an EU army discussed at the Bratislava summit ‘informal gathering’ of EU Heads of Government (minus Theresa May), reported in The Times yesterday cannot be, if Brexit means Brexit, anything other than a denial of reality.

If government statements are honest, then the UK is going to exit the bloc in 2019. By that time plans for something as legally, diplomatically and practically complex as an EU army would still be very much in draft form. At that point, the UK will not “go on resisting” anything. Sceptical non-NATO members like Austria, Sweden, Finland, and, yes, Ireland, may yet prevent the creation of an EU army, but the UK is already an irrelevance in that debate.

If Brexit means Brexit, then an unnamed ‘EU diplomat’ also quoted in The Times shot Fallon’s fox in one sentence: “Threatening to block what we already want to do is not going to make an already difficult negotiation easier when Britain comes cap in hand on Brexit next year.”

Think about it – crucial negotiations overshadowed by extraordinary bad feelings created by a dying British veto of something that the UK will never be part of because it will have left the EU before it happens. It makes no sense.

So we have two possibilities. One is that Michael Fallon is stupid. He’s never struck me as being stupid, though. Definitely not this stupid. Also, the fact that he is quoted first in the article and The Times didn’t run a quote from a juicier source like Boris Johnson or ‘a spokesperson for Number 10’ implies he may have planted the story in the first place.

The second possibility is that Fallon doesn’t think the UK will be exiting the EU in 2019. That may be because he’s a staunch Remainer who can’t deal with reality. And it may be because he’s a senior member of the Cabinet and knows things that the rest of us don’t.

It’s probably unreasonable to expect a clear government line on Brexit less than three months after a Referendum result few seem to have expected, but even the broadest parameters of an ideal UK negotiation outcome are yet to be defined. It’s not just ‘The Three Brexiteers’ who are incessantly making statements out of kilter with the Prime Minister, but some of the Remainers: as well as Fallon, of late Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond haven’t sounded like people entirely convinced that the UK is actually going to be leaving the EU.

As for the Prime Minister, who always sounded like someone who disliked the EU but thought the only thing even worse was leaving it, she shows every sign of being someone prepared to tack with the prevailing wind. She has put leading Leave campaigners in the ideal position to make a success of Brexit if they can, and she is perfectly positioned to dump on them if it goes wrong. In particular, by repeatedly identifying the level of immigration as the main reason for public opposition to EU membership, she has the option of using any ‘five minutes to midnight’ deal securing the emergency brake that David Cameron failed to obtain as a material change in circumstances permitting a u-turn. If it comes to that, a repentant Boris who was always pro-EU and has never quite lost the shocked look he developed in the early hours of 24 June when he realised he was on the winning side, might prove an especially useful form of political cover for her.

Of course, the Prime Minister has also said that Brexit means Brexit, so that must mean Brexit, whatever that means.

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