Almost everything that Brexiters say now, in the circumstance of having chosen to leave, makes much more sense as a response to being forced to leave. ... Instead of the generosity, confidence, patience and optimism that might be expected to accompany victory what we see amongst Brexiters is an oscillation between sour, crabby, resentful anger and bellicose, belligerent, defiant anger. That anger seems, if anything, to grow with each passing week.
On Wednesday, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond committed £3bn to meeting the costs of Brexit: the first concrete spending commitments to replace EU bodies and programmes that will be lost in the event of no deal and the additional infrastructure required to manage potential hard borders around the UK. In effect, this was the first concrete signal of the UK government preparing to leave without a deal, rather than warning that no deal might happen. The Budget commitment was thus a highly significant statement of Britain’s latest negotiating position: not to negotiate. It appears, on its face, to rule out any possibility of UK membership of such EU-associated European blocs as EFTA and the EEA.
Not having a deal will make hosting the European City of Culture impossible, as candidate cities are restricted to members of the EU, EEA (EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), EFTA (EEA minus the EU plus Switzerland), and candidates for EU membership (currently Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Serbia) or potential candidates. A hard-Brexiting UK will meet none of those conditions, so the day after the budget the EU announced that UK cities can no longer become the 2023 European City of Culture. The five UK bidding teams were naturally disappointed, although they had been warned last December, before Article 50 had been triggered, that proceeding with bids would be subject to Brexit negotiations. Leading Brexiters, MPs for candidate cities and media outlets have expressed dismay and anger that the UK will not be eligible to participate in an EU-funded programme intended to “[connect] their local context with the European framework” four years after the total break from the EU that they desire.
Like the losses of the headquarters of the European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority last week, this latest blow ought to have surprised no one, but even the (Labour, Remain) chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, Hilary Benn, seems frustrated by the timing: “Why tell them only now?” Why? Because the day before was when exiting with no deal became de facto government policy, rather than just a horrifying possibility.
You might disagree with my interpretation of the City of Culture announcement as a response to the £3bn budget commitment, but that spending commitment has destroyed my last hope that the lack of overt preparation for a hard exit was a sign that the government would eventually swerve us into the EEA or pull back altogether. Nope, it was just another sign of dithering and incompetence. We may yet end up in the EEA, or even call a halt to Brexit, if reality bites Britain hard enough—and public opinion swings decisively enough—to force a government U-turn. But we will have lost the EMA, EBA, and now the 2023 European City of Culture, plus who knows what else in coming weeks.