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Geert Wilders  in a room with media microphones in front of him
Interested in British politics: Geert Wilders. Photograph: Phil Nijhuis/EPA
Interested in British politics: Geert Wilders. Photograph: Phil Nijhuis/EPA

Even Europe’s far-right firebrands seem to sense Brexit is a disaster

William Keegan

When I met the Dutch politician Geert Wilders years ago, he was set on ‘Nexit’. Now he too would rather stay in the EU

Exports are performing badly, pace the fantasy world of the Daily Express; supply lines for imports once regarded as routine are disrupted or discontinued altogether; staff shortages owing to new restrictions on travel and employment of our fellow Europeans are hurting the hospitality trade in what we used to boast about as our “service economy”. The UK’s economy is “5% worse off than it would be in the EU” according to a recent well-researched report by Goldman Sachs. Welcome to Brexit Britain!

In the early days of the Brexit disaster, I met Michel Barnier, the EU’s impressive negotiator, at a high-powered conference on Lake Como organised by the Ambrosetti Institute. We agreed what a disaster was in store if the UK did not come to its senses.

I also met the rightwing Dutch “firebrand” Geert Wilders, who at the time, and for some time after, was a campaigner for “Nexit” – the Netherlands leaving the EU.

Wilders was very interested in British politics, and I did my best to inform him, not least on the horrors of Brexit. I know I didn’t change his mind about Nexit – this was in 2017 – but the evidence of the damage wreaked by Brexit is now manifest to all. Wilders has apparently dropped his campaign to leave the union and prefers to alter it “from within”. If there is one positive thing Brexit has achieved, it has been to have a salutary effect on rightwing continental politicians’ opposition to the EU.

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, has memorably described the subject of Brexit as “the mammoth in the broom cupboard”. The present Labour leadership knows it is a disaster, but, in advance of the election, is terrified of offending “red wall” voters who were conned by the propaganda of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and co. And the Tories also know what a disaster it is, but they prefer to confess this among consenting adults in private. One exception is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has a great sense of humour and claims with a straight face: “There is no doubt that leaving the EU was the best decision we could have made for our economy.”

Which brings me to the fact that another former Labour leader, Harold Wilson, is back in the news. Wilson won four elections and was a consummate politician. It is revelations about his love life that have brought him back in the news, but for me what really matters is the revival of memories about how he held the warring factions of the Labour party together, and contrived to ensure that it backed the “remain” case when there was a referendum in 1975 about whether we should stay in what was then the European Economic Community. (We had entered in 1973 under the Conservative premiership of Edward Heath.)

Our membership of what was also known as the common market galvanised the British economy and undoubtedly boosted output and growth – adding some 8% to gross domestic product, according to the economic historian Nicholas Crafts.

Now, last week there was a report in the Financial Times about a paper from a political consultancy claiming that if Labour won the next election handsomely it would immediately seek to move closer to the EU via “a de facto customs union by another name”.

This was so sensitive that it prompted an immediate denial, with Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister and spokesperson on Europe, Nick Thomas-Symonds, claiming the party was committed “to making Brexit work” and that there would be “no return to the single market, the customs union or return to freedom of movement”.

In my opinion, such protestations must be a holding operation until, one hopes, this miserable gang of Tories are thrown out and sensible relations with the rest of Europe can be resumed.

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There are those who worry that we may well be on the verge of a third world war. As Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, has recently said: “Recent events may very well be creating risks that could eclipse anything since world war two. We should not take them lightly.”

Who knows? But the geopolitical situation is looking bleak. Defence spending may have to rise dramatically. Quite apart from the commercial and investment opportunities of a resumption of membership of the EU, strategic considerations may well come to the fore.

It was Heath’s predecessor but one, Harold Macmillan, who is ­supposed to have declared that what he feared most was “events, dear boy, events”. I fear I have an uneasy ­feeling that the Labour government the polls are telling us to expect is going to be confronted with “events” in spades.

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