The Brexit quagmire
The EU was founded and evolved not least as a way of controlling the nationalist ambitions that had devastated Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. States compete with each other in many ways: but the EU offered a framework for both competition and partnership.
In economic terms, sovereignty is now increasingly a fiction. Global corporations significantly determine levels of jobs and investment. They smoothly play off one country against another on labour rights and taxation, gaining a massive competitive advantage over local companies bound by national law. The nuclear power station now under construction at Hinckley Point in South-East England, has reactors designed by China, and it will be owned by the mainly state-owned Électricité de France: so much for sovereignty, not to mention privatisation.
Nationalism, though, somehow retains its political prestige. EU member states often claim maximal benefits from their EU membership, while campaigning to minimise their contributions and commitments. The EU is thus evaluated mainly as an instrument for national aims.
The phenomenon of Brexit drives this moral separatism to its consistent conclusion.
Without another sudden twist in the plot (which, however, is quite possible) the UK will leave the EU in March 2019: the terms of departure remain unknown, and government policy is amended continually in line with internal Conservative struggles.
In trying to drive a bargain, the Prime Minister has toured other member states for lobby intensively. The attempt has backfired, since she was manifestly seeking to divide the EU, rejecting its entire communitarian ideal. Pragmatically, for reasons already suggested ‘Brussels’ well knows that British disaffection with the EU is shared elsewhere to different degrees. The UK cannot be offered such generous terms as to encourage other ‘Exits’.
So radical uncertainty persists. The Government had planned to agree the terms of exit by October 2018. Even had that objective been achieved, businesses (not to mention citizens) need planning cycles far larger than six months. UK (and UK-based transnational) business currently operates in a fog of contingency planning.
Further, a no deal’ outcome remains ominously possible. A former Governor of the Bank of England recently identified the danger of what he called a ‘Brino’ (‘Brexit in name only’) dragging on for years. It ‘beggared belief’, he said, that ‘the world's sixth-biggest economy should be talking of stockpiling food and medicines’. The present Governor, obliged to be politically neutral, has warned that in a ‘disorderly no-deal’ Brexit, the British economy would contract by 8%, and house prices would tumble by 30%.
Politics at its Worst
The 2016 referendum campaign and subsequent political debate have been marked by a vicious bitterness. Boris Johnson, till recently Foreign Secretary, wrote in the right-wing 'Mail on Sunday' that Theresa May’s relationship with the EU was ‘semi-masochistic’. She has ‘wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution — and handed the detonator to Brussels’. Mr Johnson seems unaware that suicide vests are designed to kill or mutilate other people.
The rival Labour Party has failed to articulate a clear alternative. In late November the Shadow Chancellor finally explained that if there were no General Election (the Party’s ideal outcome), it would back a second referendum. However, that referendum would be as divisive as the first. Would it unfairly overturn the ‘popular will’ (52%-48%) expressed in 2016? Would a narrow vote for Remain (say by 52%-48%!) require a third referendum? Others reply that this replay would (presumably) be the first chance to vote on a declared set of exit proposals.
What, finally, is the political cost of the political community’s obsession with Brexit when the UK faces massive issues of growing inequality, lack of affordable housing and shocking homelessness? And even that question is too narrow, too Britain-oriented, disregarding the momentous challenges of our time - the European and global humanitarian crisis over migration , and the ecological crisis.
Those voting Brexit had reasons for their decision. The process, however, has brought British politics into disarray and disrepute.
Frank Turner SJ
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.