Somebody should remind the current Prime Minister of the still United Kingdom of a wise sage once proclaiming loudly, as an answer to all questions about what Brexit means, that “Brexit Means Brexit.” I believe that person was a certain Boris Johnson.
That person was part of a movement that kept denigrating every single expert that advised them on the consequences for the UK as regards trade, relations with the EU, and, most importantly, the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Predictably, the chickens are coming home to roost now. Or rather, they may be stuck in complex supply lines hampered by increased bureaucracy due to Brexit. Clearly, there needs to be a border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. That border lies in Ireland, a result of British colonization of the island and the regained independence of part of the island. The remaining part that is still part of the British Crown is one of the four nations of the United Kingdom, which conveniently is separated by sea from the island of Great Britain. The only way to avoid a land border on Ireland would be to erect it between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as agreed by said Boris Johnson.
Pacta Sunt Servanda – treaties are to be followed, as the old saying goes. Political tricksterdom can only go so far without consequences. Is the expectation that the EU will violate their own rules? If the UK was still in the EU, they could shape policy; now, it is 27 to 1. Is the expectation that Ireland should not follow EU rules but be aligned with the UK? If anyone seriously considered this (and some seem to do so), this would be legitimately seen as an act of neo-colonialism.
Clearly, anti-Irish attitudes were the main driver behind Brexit ignorance. Surely, Irish interests were seen as less important to the snubbish political establishment in Westminster and Whitehall. That goes for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland: Neither matter, seemingly, enough for the UK to have been taken into consideration when even thinking about Brexit.
Similarly, the European Union is being underestimated. Granted, the EU may seem dysfunctional at times. All these quarreling nations could not possibly really want to work together; look at the problems between the EU and Poland and Hungary right now. But is Poland going to leave the EU and become Belarus 2.0 under Putin’s guidance? Certainly not. Is Hungary going to align with Russia or China? Both countries have issues with the EU becoming too dominant in domestic policy (rightly or wrongly; in my opinion, wrongly, but what do I know), but they know they are better off in a dissident position within the EU rather than a subservient one to anti-democratic big powers.
The UK left the EU because, frankly, they never were fully in. All other big powers in Europe have been sufficiently humbled by the angel of history to have realized that their future lies within a united Europe, come what may. History teaches what very well would come if Europeans started to be disunited again. Have no illusions about it. To wish for the EU to fail is folly, nothing else.
Brexit was and continues to be a folly. It is a failure of the political establishment in the UK, without any doubt. Now they need to realize what they have said before: Brexit indeed means Brexit, the people, apparently, don’t matter.
There is no question that Brexit will impact trade between the European Union and the United Kingdom negatively. This is not something that needs to be answered in the concrete. A simple history lesson will survive.
The European integration process that began after World War II led to the European Union and its component institutions, among them the Free Market, the Schengen Agreement, the Euro currency and common policies on economic, atomic, judicial, foreign and security policy.
The purpose of this integration process was to intensify cooperation and trade in Europe to make any future war between the member states very difficult if not impossible, but most of all, unnecessary. Every single border in Europe is the outcome of warfare and strife. Most currently existing European nation states have seen territorial changes in history, and many are recent creations of the 19th or 20th century.
It stands to reason that in order for there to be trade, there needs to be peace, and in order for there to be peace, that which has divided Europe – the quest over territory and dominion in Europe – needs to be removed as an obstacle. As the question of national sovereignty is tied to the question of territory, any attempt to secure peace and prosperity (which includes trade) needs to limit national sovereignty. Put differently, peace can be made if trade replaces war.
To facilitate trade, many barriers to trading were eliminated by the European integration process. That does not mean that trade did not exist prior to the European Economic Communities, but it was more difficult. Eventually the UK joined the EEC in order to facilitate trade.
If the UK leaves, it must mean that the barriers and obstacles to trade that were limited or removed by the EU will reappear. This is not because of European ill will, it is simple logic: European Integration means the removal of barriers, and if you undo that process, the barriers will reappear.
What does “barrier” mean in the context of trade? Typically, it means costs and time – through paperwork, tariffs, regulations, et cetera – basically all the boring stuff the European Union takes care of.
Thus it is not a matter of whether Brexit will hurt trade, but how much.
Does that mean that it will hurt peace? Hopefully not. Ask around in Northern Ireland. Blame those in the UK that for decades have pushed anti-EU misinformation, set up a non-binding (!) referendum, made a political decision to accept its imperfect conclusion on a strict 50-50 line, and ignored all advice to ameliorate the situation. But don’t blame the EU. Their message has always been clear: You may leave, but the price to pay will be higher than the UK’s already discounted membership rate.
There is a reason that Norway and Switzerland pay into the EU budget. They should really be members, but that is up to their populations. If being a quasi-member who has most obligations but no say-so is an attractive state of affairs, so be it.
If the UK ends up paying into EU budget as well to alleviate Brexit pains (or rejoin as a member), it will have achieved the most paradoxical result: similar monetary contributions with an even greater loss of sovereignty due to lack of true membership.
There are no words to describe this scenario that do not involve any real or implied insults. I’ll leave it there.
Brexit is not possible. That is, Brexit in any meaningful sense of the word. Whatever meaning may have hidden in the idiotic phrases and jingoism of “Brexit Means Brexit”, behind empty cries for sovereignty, taking the country “back” to wherever, whatever the original intention: A complete and clean break with the EU is simply not possible without seriously bad compromises.
Let us remember. The promise of those promoting Brexit – the exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union – was that finally, the UK would be outside the influence of the allegedly ever-more meddling EU, and able to trade globally, use the money they would have sent to the EU for the National Health Service instead, and finally “take back control” over their national fate.
Let us also remember: Brexit started as a dare and was never something that was seriously presumed to happen. Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to play the old game that the UK has always played in the EU – be part of it but not too much – and used the threat of a Brexit vote as a scare tactic to demand concessions from the continent, reminding everyone that British EU membership was not a matter of deep political and historical conviction, but that it came about due to pressures from the United States, the ignoble end of the Empire, and the cost of not being part of the single market. It was a business deal.
To be fair, to most other European members of the EU, it is a business deal as well – but there are also historical, cultural, geographical and other ties that make the European project necessary. The EU exists, after all, as a correction to the rampaging nationalism that ended up in the ethnic cleansing and genocides committed in two World Wars. The containment of Germany as the main perpetrator of these crimes could and can only happen if the historical fallacy of borders alongside clean ethnic or national lines was corrected.
But British exceptionalism was about to have its day, and Brexit was it. Before the vote happened, in 2014, Scotland had its referendum on whether to stay in the UK – based on the assumption that the UK would stay in the EU. Scottish voters dutifully obliged, and were betrayed later by a referendum that should never have happened; after all, there had been a referendum before in 1975 when entering the EC, and subsequent treaty negotiations happened with the people’s support through the representative democracy. The 2016 referendum was a political ploy, and Cameron – who agitate against Europe before claiming to argue in favor of membership – is ultimately responsible. The referendum, after all, was non-binding, but Parliament decided to act on it anyway.
Theresa May knew Brexit was not possible and did what she could to prevent the greatest of damage. Labor, under Jeremy Corbyn – always living in the shadow of accusations of antisemitism and extreme left-wing radicalism – was no help either. It fell to the Boris Johnson, an assumedly well-educated politician who enjoys playing the clown, and who seems to enjoy games with the highest of stakes.
According to Johnson, Brexit means to take back control. But to what degree is that even possible?
Firstly, let us look at the Irish border problem. Ireland is in the EU, Northern Ireland in the UK. Without Brexit, the border had become meaningless. Membership in the EU is a key component to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. If the rules in all three parts (Republic of Ireland (A), Northern Ireland (B), United Kingdom (C)) are the same, then we could simplify this as A=B=C. The Irish border problem is solved if A=B (rules in Ireland the same as in Northern Ireland). UK unity is maintained if B=C (rules in Northern Ireland same as in Great Britain). Brexit means that B changes, and that cannot anymore equal A. If Northern Ireland cannot comply by single market rules anymore, then there needs to be a border regime on the island – or Northern Ireland complies with rest of the island. Johnson has categorically denied any distance between the UK and Northern Ireland. It’s an equation that will prove to be impossible to solve.
There either is or is not a single market, and any fudge solution will not work. Ireland will become the English-speaking voice in the EU, and will immediately be receiving support from the United States. England keeps forgetting that it is not really the “mother country” to the US that it thinks it is. Amongst Euro-Americans, 14% identify with Germany, 10% with Ireland, 7% with England, 5% with Italy, 3% with Poland. Joe Biden is Irish-Catholic. The Supreme Court is largely Catholic-Jewish by now. England is fading in American cultural memory. If Brexit Britain wants to retain its special relationship with the US, that may work within NATO and the Five Eyes, but economically, the EU (meaning, Ireland) will be a more important partner for American business interests.
Secondly, as mentioned before, Scotland agreed to be part of the UK only because of EU membership. Contrary to the Ireland case, there might actually be a cultural desire to indeed have a border between Scotland and England emerge. If Brexit happens finally, Scotland can leave the union and apply to become a member of the EU as an independent state. This is categorically different from the Catalan case (which is often brought up as a scare tactic), and more in line with the Czechoslovakian case. Czechoslovakia split up into Czechia and Slovakia before applying for EU membership. Catalonia seeks independence from an existing EU member, and to – assumedly – stay with the EU as an independent member state. This is a completely different scenario than the Scottish case. Scotland is forced out of the EU by an act of Parliament (remember, the referendum was non-binding originally till its decision was accepted by Parliament), and it only seeks to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Europe.
Thirdly, the dreaded promises. The NHS will not be receiving the money that used to be going to the EU; that promise (which probably was key to the success of the referendum) was canned already. Support for regions like Cornwall and the North will now rely on Westminster, not Europe. In global trade, the weight of the UK outside the EU will be significantly smaller, and its negotiating power reduced. The empire is gone, and outside England, Australia and New Zealand, memories of the empire are not necessarily positive.
In the end, Brexit will mean reliance on the EU without the possibility to shape EU policy. It will mean being at the mercy of rising global powers, of Ireland, and the US. It will mean the threat of secession not just of Scotland, Northern Ireland, but maybe even Wales and Cornwall. Maybe there is a solution here. If Brexit has to happen, England leaves and the rest stays. Maybe India will offer Britain membership in its union as a crown colony?
Let us come to our senses. The time for nationalism is over. We’re all interconnected, for worse, but also for better. Whatever will come out of Brexit will not be the magic solution to all the problems for which the UK government has successfully blamed the EU. Britain is not leaving the continent geographically. It remains where it is. Joining the EU was the logical choice in the past, and it will still be there once Brexit has been revealed for what it really is: an illusion of the outdated concept of national control in a global world.