Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, is singing a more friendly tune to Britain than his fellow commissioners: “We’re not going away and you will always be welcome to come back”. In a similar vein, “You’ll be back,” sings King George III’s character in the musical Hamilton, in a love song to his rebellious colonies, but adds: “And when push comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love”. Though they have stopped short of sending battalions, too often the rulers of the European empire have seemed to be adopting a counterproductive hostility to their departing British colony.
When William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, became prime minister in July 1782 he faced roughly the same problem as the EU faces today: how generous an empire should be to a departing nation, in that case the 13 American colonies. As sore losers of the recent war, British ministers’ initial stance towards the Americans at the Paris treaty negotiations that began that year was condescending and tough: call them “colonials”, threaten to deny them access to British and Caribbean ports and refuse their demands for land beyond the Appalachians.
Shelburne realised this was a mistake, if only because Britain might need the Americans as allies in future conflicts with the French. But also, being a leading champion of free trade and an avid follower of Adam Smith, he refused to see the negotiation as a zero-sum game.
Being generous to the Americans would benefit both sides in the long run, Shelburne argued. So he changed tack and instructed Richard Oswald, the British delegate, to offer the astonished American delegates — Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay — a uniquely generous deal instead. The deal was agreed in 1783. It meant that the United States, as they would come to be known, would get access to British ports and would have open-ended ownership of the vast trans-Appalachian lands, including the extensive territory known as Illinois County, an area that had previously been deemed still British.
Although the Americans bit Oswald’s hand off, and peace treaties with the French, Dutch and Spanish soon followed, it made the sometimes devious and unreliable Shelburne unpopular with most of his fellow cabinet ministers and the British public. Charles James Fox criticised Shelburne for having made “concessions in every part of the globe without the least pretence of equivalent”. That is the eternal zero-sum cry of the mercantilist who does not think that gains from trade can be mutual. Shelburne lost office in March 1783 and never served as prime minister again.
Yet he was proved right. America’s subsequent prosperity helped Britain hugely by providing it with both a market in which to sell its manufactured goods and a hinterland to source the raw materials it needed. It was not all smooth sailing, of course, and there was the small matter in 1814 of British troops burning the White House in retaliation for the destruction of property in Canada during a brief sideshow of the Napoleonic wars. But in the long run the special Anglo-American relationship emerged and endured to immense mutual benefit.
So far the EU has taken a tough line on Brexit, hoping to make it so unpleasant that we change our minds. But this has not worked. Dismissing David Cameron’s request for comprehensive reform in 2015, weaponising Northern Ireland to defeat Theresa May’s soft Brexit in 2018 and taking advice from the likes of Tony Blair and Dominic Grieve on how to negotiate in order to get a second referendum have led the EU into a dead end and resulted in a “harder” Borisite Brexit than would otherwise have occurred.
Now that we are definitely leaving this month, will the EU continue to try an intransigent strategy as it seeks a new relationship with Britain? Given the failure of the British to change their minds thus far, the extinction of the possibility of a second referendum and the fact that the British economy has not stumbled since 2016, that might be unwise.
Thomas Kielinger, a veteran German journalist, argued recently that “the Europeans need to get their act together. They must create a relationship with Boris. They are not going to be able to be stubborn or refuse compromises.” The more difficult they make a free-trade deal, the more they will encourage British firms to look to America and Asia for business deals instead.
True, feelings are running high in Brussels where the demagoguery of the Brexit Party MEPs in the European Parliament no doubt causes some resentment, but feelings have been running high here too. For three years we have been subjected to the curl of Jean-Claude Juncker’s lip, the hiss of Donald Tusk’s lisp, the shrug of Michel Barnier’s shoulders and the snarl of Guy Verhofstadt’s tweets, not to mention the BBC’s Katya Adler perpetually explaining to us how much better Brussels’ negotiators are than ours. These have not endeared Britons to the project they are now leaving.
Mr Barnier seems tempted to repeat his tough stance, to show us what fools we have been to step outside the tent. But the governments of member states, and Mr Timmermans, are edging towards a more emollient line, mindful of the opportunity we will both have to be markets for each other’s goods and services.
Lord Shelburne did the right thing and got the sack. The lucky thing for President Ursula von der Leyen, as she contemplates whether to follow in his footsteps, is that, being unelected, she does not have to worry about losing office.