I’ve not written for some time about the so-called Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. I got tired of writing and thinking about it as much as my readers must’ve got fed up of hearing my views about it. Sorry, but it’s time for a review.
2 years of negotiation with the EU has brought us to a critical point: there’s only 9 months to ‘B-day’ and, so far, there’s no agreement on the terms of our withdrawal or our future relationship (political, trading or military). In broad terms the ‘Brexiteers’ seem to have the upper hand in a divided government. Having unwisely fought, and almost lost, a ‘snap’ election last year, Prime Minister,Theresa May (allegedly a former ‘Remainer’) is hamstrung. She dare not precipitate a leadership contest, and possible general election, by fronting down the hard line Brexiteers in her party.
The electorate, which is not all of the country, voted to leave by a relatively narrow margin of 52/48%. Broadly the vote of older people was for Brexit, and of younger people to remain in the EU. Many of those who voted to leave, it appears, were swayed more by perceptions of uncontrolled immigration than they were of the warnings about negative consequences for our economy. Many were, it seems, attracted by the promise of increased funding for the NHS, paid for by a so-called “Brexit Dividend”: we’d redirect money formerly paid into the EU.
In recent weeks we’ve seen the collapse of the NHS finally admitted, not by words but by deeds: £20 billion is to be found. This money is, though, to come from general taxation, which is a tacit admission that there will be NO “Brexit Dividend”. Even the government’s own Office of Budget Responsibility has called the Brexit Dividend an illusion.
Hopes for dramatically reduced immigration (“reduced to tens of thousands”) are being dashed. They were, at best, based on misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a complex issue. At worst it was blatant racism and xenophobia. The UK already has the means to control non-EU migration, and has failed to do it. Why? It hasn’t the resources to identify, detain, and remove those who are already illegally here, even those who have committed criminal acts. The tests and controls proposed to control EU migration, post-Brexit, are broadly the same as those with which they have failed to control non-EU migration. The government is already talking about giving migrants who are here on Brexit day the right to stay on the basis of a three question test which an 11 year old could manage.
The pro-Brexit MPs are complaining that the EU isn’t negotiating seriously, or properly. They are saying “No deal is better than a bad deal”. This blustering, as a negotiating ploy, is making major industries nervous. Airbus and BMW, for example, are both major pan-european employers (and earners of foregin currency) and openly talking about quitting the UK if there is no ‘deal’. Whether in the general public or politics, people have been ‘bleating’ in a childish “it’s my ball, and if you won’t play my way I’ll go home and take the ball with me” kind of way.
The fact is that we asked to leave the EU, they didn’t ask us to leave. There are rules to EU membership – we helped write them! Call them the Terms and Conditions if you like. How many of us buy a non-refundable ticket on-line without reading the T&Cs? A lot. How far do they get if they try to cancel the ticket. Nowhere. Why do we think that anyone should give us exceptions if our approach is to say, “Yes we knew about the T&Cs but we don’t like them”?
In the UK parliament we have had the spectacle of our upper chamber, the un-elected House of Lords, repeatedly throwing legislation back at the Commons in an effort to force the Government to cede the final decision on any Brexit deal to the elected UK parliament, not the Government. This is great for anti-Brexiteers, and actually for the EU too, but it is a really important point of principle for a parliamentary democracy. To let parliament vote on the final terms is not a subversion of democracy (by possibly overturning the original brexit referendum) but a reinforcement of democracy. Parliament must be sovereign, otherwise our (unwritten) constitution is worthless.
Now, we have to add into this mess two things: 1) the fact this has never happened in the EU before, and 2) the rise of the “Right” more generally in European politics. Not everything in the EU garden is rosy. There have been, and remain, tensions about the direction of travel of the EU project – more integration vs more independence. After the global financial crash in 2008, the near bankruptcy of states like Italy and Greece created a real possibility of dissintegration. Because it’s never been done before the EU is having to negotiate Brexit from the ground up: it’s having to make (and negotiate amongst 27 individual states) the rules for a state leaving. It has to do this with one eye on whoever might follow the UK ‘out of the door’, so it’s in its best interests to make that process as difficult and painful as possible – or risk states leaving as and whenever there is another change of national government (which in Italy is about every 12 months). The EU cannot afford to have a membership revolving door: when countries apply to join it cannot be on the basis of “if we don’t like it or get what we want we can always bail out again”. If it is to mean anything, the EU, and membership of it, must be about the collective good.
Unfortunately throughout the Brexit period we have seen a significant shift from collaborative to isolationist politics generally. The wave of anti-immigrant feeling that, in part, gave birth to Brexit has been replicated across Europe (and indeed the United States). There are now strong, even controlling, elements of ‘populist’ (i.e. nationalist/facist) politics in several countries. It is all chillingly reminiscent of pre-WW2 Germany.
I make no secret of my views: I think Brexit is, and will be, a disaster for the UK. What’s more I think it is, and will be, a disaster for Europe as a whole. Russia is, metaphorically, rubbing its hands at the turmoil, and exploting it for all it’s worth. More than ever we, and the world, need a strong, united, progressive Europe, one where our long (if somewhat chequered) history and experience of diplomacy and negotiation would be a positive force. On the outside we, and the EU, are diminished.
It’s too much to hope that politicians and public figures who “called it wrong”, on either side of the argument, will hold up their hands and say so. It’s also too much to hope that Theresa May, if she really is pro-EU membership at heart, would actually precipitate a general election and possibly bring the whole Brexit process to a shuddering halt. Was that a flying pig that just went by?