BRITAIN PUTS THE CLOCK BACK
BREXIT. Occasionally an event of major significance occurs. After it things are never the same. In Ireland we’ve just finished celebrating the centenary of one such event – the Easter Rising. Hiroshima was another, the fall of the Berlin Wall a third, Nine Eleven a fourth. On June 23 arguably another such event happened when Britain, the world’s fifth economic power, voted – narrowly – to quit the European Union. As I write the shock waves internationally, not least in Ireland, show no sign of diminishing. A new, ostensibly gung-ho government is in power in London, determined to push through with exiting, a process likely to take several years.
The inquests and recriminations are well under way. Europe’s establishments and chattering classes, including in Britain itself, are baffled and dismayed. Britain was seen as a sometimes petulant but important partner, not only as one of the Big Four but also as providing an important counterweight in internal policy discussions, usually to be found on the side resisting further or speedier European integration. Its EU credentials were never in doubt even though it maintained a semi-detached position on key EU areas like the Euro and the Schengen common travel zone, stances it could more easily take given the financial clout of the City of London and Britain’s position as an island.
Britain’s increasingly vocal Eurosceptic wing, represented by UKIP and a sizeable minority within the Conservative Party, was ignored or discounted. Britain was regarded as too deeply embedded within Europe for trade, investment and social reasons, seriously to contemplate the leap in the dark that leaving constituted. The warning signs were ascribed to the same mixture of discontent, disillusionment, dissatisfaction with the status quo and vague xenophobia evident in a number of other member States, where right wing parties were starting to garner significant electoral support. All true, no doubt. What made the British situation unique was that, staggeringly, a country with little or no tradition of deciding important matters by referendum, was asked to vote a simple yes or no on a proposal to undo involvement in almost half a century of political and social construction and cooperation within Europe. The resulting Mother of all Protest Votes was then compounded by the (narrow) victors proclaiming there could be no going back on the result.
The “Why” has been parsed and analysed since. The philosopher Roger Scruton, in a brilliant article in Prospect Magazine, has traced the alienation of the English working class in recent years, and their feeling that, above all, their sense of identity was being eroded. In a striking phrase he has identified a vital flaw in the EU as it is: “the European people have not been merely SUBJECT to a treaty, but GOVERNED by it.” Add the hubris of a wealthy faction in Britain, convinced that the country would do better “going it alone.” As far back as 1994 a junior British Tory Minister explained this attitude in detail to me; depressing but prophetic. Taken together, and in a campaign notable for its chauvinism and churlishness as well as its deceitfulness, the mix proved a potent one.
The referendum outcome has shattered the comfortable Establishment near-consensus of a Europe moving steadily if slowly towards an “ever closer union” a vision which has sustained Europhiles for over half a century. This cosy vision has it that the then EC, when Britain joined in January 1973, was little more than a post-war free trade area between six members, with one or two transnational dimensions, in coal, steel and a limited number of agricultural products. It had aspirations to be a lot more, and wording in its treaties to allow for organic growth. And, over the decades, it HAS grown, dramatically, sometimes lopsidedly, changed its name and now comprises a shaky and incomplete union of five hundred million spread over twenty eight countries. It has established a zone of unprecedented economic and prosperity across Europe with landmark standards in human and related social rights. A queue of countries waits to join.
With up to twenty eight countries, each with its own national priorities and particular requirements, for the EU getting to where it is has not been easy. Progress has been slow and tortuous. There IS a common currency – the EURO, but not all twenty eight are members. There IS a Common Travel Area – Schengen – but again some countries -Britain and Ireland – are outside. There are serious differences evident over national attitudes to the Refugee problem. There is serious economic imbalance between the wealthier North and the poorer South, something exacerbated by the 2008 Financial Crisis. Yet overall the consensus has it that Europe has muddled through and worked hard at solutions. The various landmark Enlargements, culminating in the 2004 admission of the Central Europeans, are testimony to the vibrant European idea. And significant progress has been made in making the EU more democratically accountable, a process that is ongoing. Throughout, Britain has been an important and valued component in the evolution of the Union.
That vision now lies in tatters. What happens next is unclear. We are now in a kind of phoney war situation. The process for exiting the EU, stuck in as an afterthought as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, must first be initiated by the UK, with afterwards a two year “sunset period” to complete the separating process. How quickly the new British government acts to invoke Article 50 remains to be seen. Teresa May has appointed Brexiteers to lead the exit charge, which could be a Machiavellian tactic, though others see it as filling the posts with what remained after the purge of the pro-Europeans.
Thus far these have made predictable noises about negotiating bilateral trade deals with third countries. Yet eight of Britain’s top ten markets, including Ireland, are EU or EEA members, accounting for the bulk of her exports. Britain already has thriving trade with all major third countries, on foot of existing trade deals negotiated by the EU Commission; whether any new deals will prove more fruitful or beneficial for Britain must be moot. There’s no pot of gold out there that the evil EU has been withholding. A lot of similar hard economic realities are likely to be aired in the coming months as the small print of Britain’s economic and social entanglement with the EU is picked over. And politically there’s Scotland, which voted 62% to remain, with every prospect of a constitutional crisis before long.
For Ireland the issues are profound. We have major concerns, quite apart from the economic ones which are potentially more serious for us than for the other EU members. The Common Travel Area – a vital element in our bilateral relationship with Britain – is under serious threat. The EU’s one land frontier with Britain is within Ireland. Given the posturing of the Brexiteers over curbing immigration from the EU, that Border – and with it that special relationship – is now an issue. Arguably the Common Travel Area has sugared the bitter pill of Partition over the years and is part of the fabric underpinning the Peace Process. Is it possible that the casual passing whim of English voters will “do” for Ireland yet again? Perfidious Albion?