Paris: From the point of view of anywhere on the continent, there is now just a widening yawn about Brexit. “If you want to go, go and get on with going” is what politicians and policy-makers or opinion formers now say. Brexit may be of the utmost centrality for a narrow self-obsessed English political class – Labour and other opposition parties as much as ruling Tories – but the rest of Europe sees a petulant whining baby that will neither do the business nor get off the potty.
If the UK wants to keep open some trade relationship then Europe is happy to talk. Michel Barnier told me in April he had a plan for a no-tariff, no-duty trade deal once the three Article 50 negotiation points – money, N Ireland, and EU/UK citizens – had been sorted.
Those three points, it is worth recalling, were accepted by the government. They are not some cunning Eurocrat plot devised by the wicked wizards of Brussels but a jointly agreed agenda to get base-line agreement before moving on. No one from Poland to Portugal thinks it is Barnier’s or Jean-Claude Juncker’s fault that the British government is incapable of making serious offers out of sheer terror it seems of a few Ukip fellow travellers in the cabinet and a couple of propaganda papers owned off-shore.
On the eve of the Brexit referendum Boris Johnson boasted that there were “hundreds of millions of people around Europe who agree with us but currently have no voice.” This bombastic vanity has turned out to be hollow.
While there were some hopes that Brexit would be followed by Frexit under a Marine Le Pen or Nexit when Geert Wilders became Dutch prime minister, the opposite has happened. Le Pen now says France should stay in the EU and keep using the euro. The new Dutch government is firmly committed to the EU. The different parties of the populist right and left like the Freedom Party in Austria, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany or Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are all committed to staying in the EU.
So are illiberal rulers of Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere in the post-2004 enlarged European Union. Britain is now alone in wanting to amputate itself from the EU.
Political leaders on the continent may want a differently run EU with different priorities and from both right, left, liberal or green points of view a different Europe is a fair political demand. But none of them, for a second, is thinking of following Theresa May or Johnson, or the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail in arguing that their countries should leave the EU.
Far from speaking for hundreds of millions, Boris Johnson is now the EU’s number one clown as he keeps denouncing Europe and bad-mouthing European leaders. Brexit has had the opposite effect of waking the rest of Europe up to what a disaster leaving the EU would mean for their national interests.
The advocates of a transition in London cannot face up to this point. The EU may well offer a transition – assuming agreement on Article 50 priorities – but it is a transition to nowhere. Britain at best becomes a rule-taker not a rule-maker and has to abide by laws and regulation the UK would have no part in making.
The rest of Europe is not going to do Britain any favours before, during and after a transition period. The Brexit bluff has been called. The EU27 are not frightened by Brexit. The only signal that would make sense would be to be big enough – as over Suez, or 1930s appeasement, or interventions in Iraq and Libya, or even the poll tax – to admit a mistake was made, swallow pride, find a new generation of political leaders, ignore the Barclay brothers, Jonathan Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch, and return to being a leading nation in Europe.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister for Europe and a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners.