Theresa May has limited her hard Brexit options, argues former Tony Blair adviser Roger Liddle

The British political class may be obsessed with Brexit, but the continent’s political world is not. Among European social democrats, there is widespread sadness about Britain’s vote to leave: pained disbelief that for all the European Union’s manifest imperfections, anyone rational could have voted ‘Leave’. They are convinced that however hard it is, Europeans can only solve their shared problems by working together.

This collectivist, social democratic instinct is deeply ingrained. It has survived the scale of the challenges facing Europe – economic despair in the south and a refugee crisis that exposes populist, cultural and religious tensions all too redolent of Europe’s horrific past. Yet there is a growing conviction ‘the centre can hold’ despite the press attention the populists receive. The Dutch elections were terrible for Labour, but the Geert Wilders breakthrough never materialised. There is a growing confidence that some combination of Emmanuel Macron in France, Martin Schulz or Angela Merkel in Germany and Matteo Renzi in Italy can give Europe new hope.

Brexiters simply do not understand this. They believe the EU will soon explode as a result of populist pressures and want a return to Michael Gove’s ‘Concert of Europe’ of sovereign states freely trading and cooperating together. Our continental friends have a less rose-tinted view of history.

All this will have an impact on Brexit. The leaders of the founding member states, no longer held back by a semi-detached Britain, will chart a new course for a multi-speed Europe. An inner core will pursue a more integrated Euro area and closer defence and foreign policy cooperation, hastened on by Donald Trump. The outer tier will continue to enjoy the benefits of the single market and the privileges of European citizenship, of which the Germans see the principle of free movement as a central article of faith.

It is through this lens that our partners will decide how to handle Brexit. Had David Cameron got his way, Britain could have lived comfortably within the outer tier, compensating for its refusal to join the Euro by a heightened commitment to defence and security cooperation. But no more. Our partners will not seek to penalise us unnecessarily, but they will insist EU rules are applied in a logically consistent way.

Britain cannot enjoy the same level of trade access to the single market as a full member, because of its refusal to stick to the rules of the club. Theresa May insists on Britain’s sovereign right to set its own rules and regulations which must by definition inhibit trade. She refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the European commission and court of justice in enforcing the European rules. She will not accept the principle of free movement. And she says Britain will no longer contribute ‘vast sums’ to the EU budget.

Yet all member states have to follow the rules that govern the single market. How then can EU member states permit the United Kingdom to enjoy all the economic benefits of membership while avoiding all the concomitant obligations?

A hard Brexit is therefore inevitable unless May dramatically reverses the policy of her Lancaster House speech and opts for a similar status to Norway. The only question is whether Brexit turns out to ‘hard and disruptive’ or ‘hard and orderly’.

May presumably hopes for the latter. The doubt is whether the visceral Eurosceptics in her party, backed to the hilt by the Daily Mail and Sun, of whom she has so far been an abject appeaser, will give her the political space to compromise. The ‘new relationship’ she seeks with the EU could easily morph into a torrent of nationalist outrage and bitterness which will be deeply damaging to Britain’s European future.

In truth she misreads our EU partners.

And where is the Labour party? Instead of mounting the patriotic case against a hard Brexit, we are prisoners of our own populist nightmares and as weak and pathetic an opposition to the Tories as Labour has ever offered.

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Roger Liddle is a Labour peer and former adviser to Tony Blair on Europe. He tweets at @liddlro

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