In The Observer of 26th January, Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times wrote: The central idea of Brexit is « part of the 18th- and 19th-century European culture: the nation-state as the primary locus of political loyalty and as the collective manifestation of a unified ‘people’ »…But here is the irony: Britain is not and never has been a nation state. For most of its history as a state, it has been at the heart not of a national polity, but of a vast multinational and polyglot empire. And the UK is itself a four-nation amalgam of 4 countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no single pre-EU UK ‘nation’ to return to.
On the other hand Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State under Truman (1949-1953), said: ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and failed to find a role’. In 1973 the UK joined the EEC and in the 2016 referendum the majority, although a small one, voted to come out of the EU. Britain’s itinerary in Europe has been punctuated with many problems with integration into the European system. Within that space therein lies the Brexit problematique and the dilemmas of going forward. Taking Back Control became the main Brexit slogan although Britain played a major part in enacting European legislation.
After WW2 the whole economic configuration of the world changed; the USA, free from the carnage and destruction that Europe had witnessed, came out of it the strongest, and fearing a Soviet takeover of Western Europe, launched the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged countries. Britain was going to lose India and other colonies later. The Commonwealth could not replace the same kudos as all the members are theoretically equal. Wanting to avoid future wars, Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries created the European Coal and Steel Community, later to be called the European Economic Community. Britain, still angst-ridden with the loss of empire, was initially ambivalent about joining to such an extent that French President de Gaulle opposed their application to join several times. In the UK there was always strong opposition to join although Ted Heath took them in in 1973 and that was confirmed by a later referendum in 1975 (a strange way to do things, one would say). When Margaret Thatcher took over, opposition to Europe became more vociferous and niggly although Thatcher did support the enlargement of the union. Britain kept its aloofness from any developments, thereby creating frustration on the part of the Europeans who wanted more integration. During that time the Eurosceptics were getting stronger in the Tory party and Labour was becoming more Europhile. The big dilemma was control or influence; those who wanted to join the whole system with its institutions wanted to control and those who wanted to keep a distance although being a member were quite happy to influence decisions for British interests. Therein lay the roots of Brexit. The UK, wanting to steer a relatively independent course, opted out of several sectors – the social chapter, Schengen, etc… To be fair, other countries had similar opt-outs whereby they did not participate fully in certain policy areas. The various treaties did create several opt-outs for various countries. Later with the adoption of the Euro, there was the European Central Bank, which was taking decisions affecting the EU and the UK felt left out in the cold. There was a two-speed Europe. The gulf became wider and in Britain there were huge discontents; the Europhiles wanted to get in deeper so as not to miss any opportunities and the Eurosceptics wanted more separation.
Driving that Euroscepticism was a harking back to the colonial days or some sort of union of all the white dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Also they are trying to find friends in the ex-colonies as relations have been kept through the creation of the Commonwealth. Recently the UK organised a seminar with representatives from Africa to look at economic cooperation, but not much came out of it, especially as China has started to make its presence felt there. While those same Eurosceptics are not known for their warmth for immigrants from the New Commonwealth, their suddenly-found internationalism beggars belief. Big store is being made of a treaty with the USA, but then every country would look after its own interests first and foremost.
A new era has started for the UK outside the EU but not much is going to change during the transition period until the end of 2020. The 11 remaining months of 2020 will see the UK and the EU negotiating deals in several areas, the main one being a trade deal. Given that both sides have a big stake in the trade between them, they are very keen to keep what they have, i.e., friction-free trade as that would be less disruptive. PM Johnson would opt for a Canada-style agreement, which means no tariff on physical goods but not on services. As London is a major financial centre, financial services would have to be negotiated separately. For the UK to have that, it would have to have the same standards as the EU in terms of the environment, workers’ rights, consumer rights. If Theresa May’s government had been able to work with the Labour opposition on those issues, we would have had Brexit much earlier and no Johnson’s government. Of course there are also the questions of fishing rights, security and military cooperation and various forms of collaboration like the European Space Agency. But the UK would not be able to have the same terms as before as that would also encourage other states to come out if they are not happy with certain things (vide Grexit).
During the transition period the UK will be able to conduct trade negotiations with other countries although they are already trading with countries who have negotiated terms with the EU who have used their 500-million market to get better terms. In today’s world protectionism is a big threat to so-called free trade; Donald Trump in his trade war with China has already imposed tariffs on goods coming from China, and China has retaliated. While free trade has lifted people out of poverty, as some economists believe, protectionism would take the world backwards and that would seriously cause problems for some countries. Being stuck among big economic blocs and not being able to dictate terms could prove difficult for the UK. China with the Belt and Road Initiative, the EU with its 27 countries, NAFTA, Mercosur – it does not look promising. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, once referred to Britain as a small island off the coast of Western Europe. It cannot get worse than that. With Boris Johnson threatening a hard Brexit, which is going out without a trade deal and on WTO terms, using this as a strategy could seriously backfire. Already Honda is closing down its Swindon car factory, Nissan is thinking of relocating some processes on mainland Europe, Standard Life (Insurance and Investments) has moved to Ireland – how many more will follow suit? There have been articles looking at how the EU could peel off (like an onion) layer by layer over the years to get production companies to relocate to mainland Europe. Would that then lead to low taxes and low wages to encourage companies to locate in the UK?
With both sides involved in brinkmanship, the future does not look certain. Negotiating trade and other deals would demand compromises, and at this moment both sides are adopting hard positions. Given that Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU by a good majority, is being treated as being in the EU Customs area with a Customs line in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and the island of Ireland, the break-up of the United Kingdom is not an impossible outcome, as Scotland too, through the Scottish National Party, which holds a big majority of seats in Scotland, could move away and join the EU, something the EU has been said to welcome in the future.
Trying to fathom the exact reasons why the majority voted to leave the EU (confirmed by the last general elections although one might say that the Opposition, through its naïvety in its lack of strategy, helped Johnson), apart from the xenophobia or disengagement with the political process, one cannot help thinking that this is the longest suicide note in history. Only the future can tell.