The Japanese martial art of aikido hinges on two connected philosophies – first, that it is wiser to use your opponent’s strength against him than it is to attempt to subdue him with brute force and, second, that you should only use as much force as is necessary to defend yourself.
Morihei Ueshiba, the founding father of aikido, explained his peaceful approach thus: ‘The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake… The real Way of a Warrior… is the Art of Peace.’
Attack may sometimes be the best form of defence but more often restraint is the best form of combat. Ueshiba’s teaching has been embraced by martial artists the world over but it has a long way to go to gain a foothold in Brussels.
Last week’s Salzburg summit demonstrated that the European Union prefers total war: those who cross it will be pummelled into submission.
This crush-kill-destroy mindset is why the leadership of the bloc did not stop to consider how its calculated humiliation of Theresa May would play out in British public opinion, or even the international press.
The Prime Minister had shown good faith by sticking broadly to the Chequers plan for a softish Brexit, despite Cabinet resignations, backbench opprobrium and threats to her leadership. What did she get for her trouble in Salzburg? A peremptory snub, coupled with disdain.
European Council President Donald Tusk told Mrs May to go back and ‘rework’ the proposals, well aware that a November deadline looms. He did more than that, though. This 61-year-old statesman engineered a sophomoric social media stunt to embarrass Mrs May.
With cameras trained on them, Mr Tusk offered the Prime Minister a sweet from a cake stand – a faux pas given her well-publicised diabetes but an innocent enough mistake. Or so it seemed until Mr Tusk posted a picture of the scene on Instagram with the comment: ‘A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.’
What could have made for a pointed jibe in person was turned into a juvenile taunt shared around the world.
French President Emmanuel Macron landed another blow with a remark that was not so much thinly veiled as nakedly hostile: ‘Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.’
The defining image of Salzburg showed Mrs May, decked out in candy apple red, standing alone and on the margins as a navy-blue hydra of European leaders marched past her in uniform stride. The ignominy was complete.
Brexiteers reacted with practised indignation and the Prime Minister returned to Downing Street to give an ill-advised speech, written by a bag-carrier who had seen one too many Churchill biopics. This isn’t the Prime Minister’s Finest Hour, it’s Carry On Out the Single Market.
In the liberal echo chamber inhabited by policy wonks and commentators, there was much unseemly glee taken in the humbling of Mrs May. The prophets of Brexit calamity had been vindicated. Boy, did all those frightful voters in the north of England have egg on their faces now. Lord Mandelson 1, Doncaster 0.
I think Brexit is a terrible idea. The trade-offs involved in economic opportunity, free movement and shared sovereignty are reasonable to my mind. The EU is not without its faults: it’s bureaucratic, sclerotic, remote, under-reformed, and the French are allowed in. The prosperity it creates is not shared widely enough and Brussels’ high-handed indifference to domestic public opinion on migration has been a boost to nationalist movements across the Continent.
I can’t claim to be much of a European – the notion of an EU identity strikes me as nationalism on a grander scale – but I never entertained the idea of voting anything other than Remain on June 23, 2016. There has not been a single day since then that I have doubted my decision.
Until Friday. Some of my fellow Remainers might have been sniggering at the abasement of Mrs May by her more sophisticated European counterparts, but I was horrified. Brexit is a bear trap largely of our own devising, but not exclusively so. The treatment of Mrs May echoed the derisive attitude Brussels took to the pre-referendum ‘negotiations’ with her predecessor. They did not believe David Cameron’s warnings and could not imagine the prospect of a Leave vote. They handed him an empty cake stand and the rest is our tumultuous present.
The decision to call the referendum was the UK Government’s and the result was down to the UK public. I seek no exculpation for either. But if we ignored all the warnings, and blithely volunteered our foot to the trap’s teeth, it is still no reason for our European partners to come and dump a sack of salt in the wounds.
The British public, including many Remainers, are beginning to suspect that Brussels holds not just our Prime Minister in contempt but the rest of us, too. When Mr Tusk meets a conscientious – if decidedly imperfect – proposal with intransigence and insult, he risks vindicating the many maledictions heard against him from Brexiteers. This is not patriotic affront or even thrawnness: what we had been assured was an enlightened and collegial project is behaving like a backstreet protection racket, handing out punishment beatings to encourage other ‘clients’ to keep paying up.
Mr Tusk seems to realise he went too far. He released a statement on Friday evening offering a more conciliatory tone: ‘The European Union and its leaders fully respect the UK’s decision expressed in the referendum on leaving the EU. From the very beginning of the negotiations we have been focused on finding a deal that will minimise the damage resulting from Brexit. Also important to us is to create the best possible relations between the EU and the UK in the future.’
He overdid it a bit by describing himself as ‘a close friend of the UK and a true admirer of PM May’ but it was almost certainly too late. Downing Street’s position had hardened and most Britons will already have made their minds up about the day’s events. You can’t sneer people into agreement.
None of this will be solved by holding yet another general election. We’ve had quite enough democracy of late, thank you very much. Remainers pin their hopes on a second referendum and the Labour Party appeared to pivot towards that position over the weekend.
The backing of Jeremy Corbyn would be enough to doom any enterprise but the People’s Vote movement is already a lost cause. It became so on Friday when Brussels finally showed its hand and revealed a fist. Instead of using his strength wisely and sparring cautiously with Mrs May, Mr Tusk acted like a bully. A long-patient bully, a frustrated bully, a bully provoked by London’s demands on customs and ignorance on the Irish border – but a bully nonetheless.
Remainers who believe this tough love is what the British have needed all along are heading for an unpleasant encounter with public opinion. I suspect there are other Remainers out there like me, rudely awakened to the supercilious and destructive ways of the EU.
If there were another referendum, many of us still could not bring ourselves to vote for Brexit but that doesn’t mean we would vote against it with any great enthusiasm.
Donald Tusk did not impose Brexit on us but he may well have made it stick.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.