Theresa May can think big all she likes. Britain’s about to find out just how small it is

Rafael Behr writes: aybe the European Union is God’s way of teaching the British about Belgium. Specifically, it is a mechanism that forces UK politicians to confront the idea that Belgium matters. And not just Belgium but countries like it – the small countries.

This concept doesn’t come naturally to a nation that is neurotically worried about its greatness. Naming famous Belgians is a parlour game for British foreign secretaries. Cultivating small-state alliances feels like something less ambitious countries do. The UK struggles to see itself in perspective because it is richer and more powerful than most countries, yet so much less influential than it used to be.

We are not alone in suffering from post-imperial angst, but we have tied ourselves in uniquely existential knots where relations with our European neighbours are concerned. Theresa May understands the deep cultural and psychological attraction of Brexit as a great unpicking – a disentanglement from continental ties, the benefits of which feel obscure to much of the public.

Therein lies the emotional cleverness of the prime minister’s formulation of a “clean Brexit”, as laid out in her speech on Tuesday. Pro-Europeans probe the agonising detail of the negotiations to come without recruiting any more of the public to share their pain. If anything, the balance of opinion is swinging the other way. The prime minister’s message was tailored to the large segment of voters, including many ex-remainers, who see the big in/out question as settled and say they want the job done without any more palaver.

The effectiveness of May’s account of future relations with the EU – no “partial membership”, no messy overlaps with the past – is its simplicity. Her Europhile critics want to talk only about complexity, which is the least catchy tune in politics. May paints Britain with the crispness of its outline restored, its place in the world made clearer by the erasure of all those fiddly lines that connect London to Brussels and then to Paris, Berlin, Ljubljana, Tallinn and the rest. She offers liberation from the need to care about Belgians.

That obligation endures whether the prime minister wants it or not. Small states will have a say in the divorce contract terms that Britain signs with the EU. Their voice will be heard in the negotiations and in chambers where the deal must be ratified. It was opposition in Belgium’s Wallonian regional parliament that nearly scuppered a Canada-EU free trade agreement last year. [Continue reading…]

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