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Vol I No. 1
PBS News & Events

From Brexit to Nixit — and the deeper crisis beyond

by William J. Martin

A Letter from London…

(On a different note, it is hard to be in Europe at present and not see signs of a very wide crisis across issues that range from survival of the currency,  to political legitimacy and on to immigration)

Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff

There was a curious period known as the “phoney war” of eight months after Britain declared hostilities on Germany in September 1939 when nothing much appeared to be happening. Something faintly similar, if happily less hostile,  has been going on now, ever since the surprise result of the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU yielded a clear mandate for “Brexit”.

In part,  this is the result of Mrs. May’s catastrophic election outcome, not long after that result, which left her unexpectedly weakened and obliged to run the country, during this vital period, with a minority administration.  But more deeply, it reflects a seemingly irresolvable uncertainty about what she actually wants to do.  Since Mrs. May was, before the Referendum, what might be described as a “tepid remainer” there has always been doubt as to how much she really wants to deliver a true Brexit, despite her constant protestations to this effect. Though it is worth noting that her favoured phrase of “Brexit means Brexit” is notably short of saying what that Brexit should comprise.

Here one big difficulty has been that participation in the Single Market and Customs Union would entail continued submission to all the rules and regulations  of the EU as well as continued surrender of immigration policy to Brussels, with large continued payments continuing as well. In addition, Britain would still not be allowed to negotiate its own trade relationships, as all such areas of policy would remain with the EU. Needless to say this does not look much like a real Brexit at all,  indeed it would arguably leave Britain worse off since it would entail submission to all the rules and bills while having no role in determining policy. A prospect that has therefore been likened by hardline Brexiteers to making Britain a “Vassal State”. A situation might remind Americans of relations with Britain before independence – and we know how that story ended.

Naturally, the EU’s central Executive body  has not been idle –known as the Commission it is entirely unelected but possessed of a deep sense of entitlement to power that reflects its tendency to self-identify with Plato’s  Philosopher Kings of Kallipolis (though they do not embrace the simple life he mandated).  From the start, they were clear that they need revenge for Britain’s contumacy in voting for Brexit, not merely for its own sake, but so as to frighten other countries who are eying the doors (such as Poland and Hungary)  by showing that it is too painful to contemplate.

And in terms of policy, since any final deal will require the consent of all the EU members states, they know that any one state can scupper the whole thing, leading to the hardest Brexit outcome of all , namely  one without any settlement. This would not end Brexit, but it would mean that the terms would be un-negotiated and thus default to those of the World Trade Organisation. This would likely mean that the EU would impose tariffs on all imports from UK whatever Britain chose to do.

Having toyed with playing a Spanish card and threatening Gibralter, they chose Ireland in the end to play the deal breaker. Thus,  the Irish Government has demanded that there continue to be a completely open border with Northern Ireland. They have then further argued that this can only happen if the UK remains in the Customs Union and Single Market, thus effectively they hope ending any real Brexit short of Britain handing Northern Ireland to the South. (What might compellingly be described as a “win win” negotiating position.)

In response to all this,  there has been  total paralysis at the highest levels of the Government in London,  for the simple reason that Ministers cannot agree on what to do.  It was all too clear on the day after the Referendum that the leading Brexiteers had not expected to win and that, as they came blinking into the daylight,  they had  no idea what to do next.

After David Cameron’s resignation,  in the ensuing contest for the leadership of the Tory Party, which was there for Boris Johnson’s taking, it was their fratricidal infighting –in which Michael Gove buried the hatchet in his best friend Boris Johnson’s back— that led to the stealth candidate Mrs May entering Downing Street and our subsequent politics of pandemonium.  First,  she seems to lack any clear vision herself. This led to tough talk in the preliminary negotiations with the EU but was then followed at each point by concessions. She also seems  too weak politically to coral her Cabinet into an actual agreement on one workable policy,  and she cannot even prevent them from displaying dissent in public in clear breach of the customary conventions.

Needless to say,  the media,  which is predominantly pro-EU along with the larger ‘administrative establishment”,  has not helped. There has been a relentless barrage of stories in concert with the wishes of Brussels about the supposed horrors of a hard Brexit and constant pressure to offer premature concessions by way of “reassurance”. A good example of this being the assurance to EU residents currently in the UK that they will be able to stay, something that should have been part of the wider settlement, but instead Mrs May feeling under pressure, went ahead and announced this before any corresponding offer had been secured from Europe for British subjects in the EU.   This was part of a fundamental problem about the UK’s opening stance in the negotiation. To be effective, this had really to be one of “we are leaving anyway but if you want any kind of special arrangement on trade afterwards (bearing in mind that the EU sells more to us than we to you) then feel free to send it over”. The moment Mrs May allowed herself to be pressured into the position of supplicating Brussels for a deal, as under media and Establishment pressure she eventually was, Brussels felt they had her cornered and could force the weakest possible Brexit on Britain in the end.

Further examples of pressure tactics are the periodic statements from Companies strongly tied to Europe that they will move jobs and headquarters to the EU, all manner of threats to Britain’s leading role in financial services, and even within the civil service generation of ill founded but staggering cost estimates for such things as new customs and border administration. There has also been an unwillingness on the part of the EU to look at the many ways in which new technology could allow an independent customs regime without requiring much by way of new physical border checks and administration (thus undermining the supposed impracticality and cost arguments made against Britain recovering control over its own trade policy and borders).

The one irony now is that the EU may in fact have overplayed its hand. By offering so little and with the Cabinet still so divided and Ireland so entrenched, the chances are rising fast that in fact no deal will be made and that Britain will  simply leave in March 2019,  free of all restrictions and thus once again a fully sovereign state,  albeit faced with a very rough initial period of transition –while it has to renegotiate all its trade relations at once and the EU effectively holding up all traffic of goods on the borders. In short, by crassly trying to impose the most limited possible Brexit the EU could end up ensuring just what the most determined Brexiteers would like– which is the hardest Brexit of all where we simply leave.

Nonetheless, looking at this scene more widely, there are some striking features of wider import.

The first is the lack of willingness on the part of the EU to be self-critical and ask why it is at risk of foundering upon so many fronts now all at once, and why it is faced with so many parties that are what the Brussels Bureaucrats contemptuously call “populist”.

The answer has to lie in the premature rush to convert the EU from being what it was first claimed to be, namely an essentially economics-focused free trade organisation, into a political Union instead with strong tendencies towards centrally planned economics. This transition from being the “Common Market” to a “European Union” was pushed through,  while paying nothing beyond lip service to the consequent “democratic deficit”. This crisis of legitimacy was  made worse by relying upon a consensus among  many of the European political parties that was so broad as to exclude dissent. It was this that surely led, in the end, to the rise of parties who were willing to provide an outlet to the popular mood of discontent. There was also a willingness to push through such a hugely ambitious scheme as the Euro, without putting in place the mechanisms for financial transfers between states it was bound to require. This left the poorer countries getting poorer, under the burden of a relatively high priced currency, and the rich manufacturing states like Germany getting richer , while able to export better with a currency which was relatively undervalued for them. The catastrophe of Greece was one result but it may yet not be the only one as Italy could still sink the entire Euro adventure.

All this points to the ultimate problem,  which is a crisis across the West in the quality of its leadership.

The various individual crises are but part of a wider one about nothing less than the future of Europe itself. Here, if ever there was one, is a critical moment when a leader of true stature is needed both to name the crisis and to articulate a new vision able to mobilise action on a scale adequate to the challenge.

Is it possible to imagine an Adenauer, De Gaulle or Churchill tolerating so much drift? Of course not, but today the nearest Europe has to offer by way of a political grandee is “Mutti” otherwise known as Mrs. Merkel. Certainly,  Mr. Macron is trying to get attention and history does suggest that small Frenchmen can cause a stir from time to time, but in terms of any figure of true grandeur there is as yet only empty space.

It is this that defines Europe’s true crisis.