by Frank Schnittger
Mon Feb 18th, 2019 at 10:35:01 PM EST
From the very first line of the foundation Treaty of Rome, "DETERMINED to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe" the EU has always thought of itself as primarily about encouraging an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe as a means of ensuring peace on the continent. Ever increasing economic integration is an important goal in itself, but also primarily a means of creating inter-dependencies which make a resort to war increasingly unthinkable.
The success of this project is self-evident. There have been no major violent conflicts within the EU since its inception despite numerous tensions and diplomatic fracas. Seen in a historical context, this represents an unprecedented 60 years of peace. Seen in a geographical context, the EU is an island of peace surrounded by wars in the Ukraine, Kosovo, Syria, Palestine and Libya.
The EU has also been instrumental in resolving or ameliorating conflicts within N. Ireland, between Russia and former Baltic states of the Soviet Union, and between states on different sides of the former "Iron Curtain". It helped ease the path to German re-unification, and may one day do so for Irish re-unification as well.
Seen in an economic context, the difficulties being experienced by the UK in extricating itself from the EU illustrate the success of the economic integration project. It wasn't meant to be easy to resurrect the ghosts of militant nationalism, and the UK will soon find there is a considerable economic price to pay for doing so.
But just as the EU was primarily a political project with strong economic and social dimensions, so too is Brexit. Many Europeans seem puzzled by the UK's hell-bent determination to pursue Brexit even after all the evidence of economic damage has become more and more apparent. So if we are to understand the EU as primarily as a political project to build peace and prosperity, how are we to understand Brexit?
The mistake made by the Remain campaign has been to focus almost exclusively on the economic benefits of membership. But the longer these became established, the more they were taken for granted. Britons allowed themselves to be convinced that they could "have their cake and eat it" and negotiate "the easiest trade deal in history" because "the EU needed them more than they needed the EU". Once seen as "the sick man of Europe" the UK's economy recovered within the EU to become the leading centre of financial services on the continent, and perhaps the World.
Memories of currency devaluations, IMF interventions, national strikes and de-industrialization have faded to be replaced by pride that the UK is still the fifth largest economy in the World, on some measures. To what extent this was based on access to the EU's Single Market and Custom's Union will only become apparent to most Britons in its absence. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with Brexiteers who acknowledge that while there might be some short-term economic damage from Brexit, the longer term political and economic benefits will be worth it.
But the larger point is that for them, Brexit wasn't really about economics at all. It was about rolling back a tide of "Europeanisation" with which they were deeply unhappy. For a time, Europeanisation was a price they were willing to pay for the economic benefits attached to the EU, but once they because convinced that those benefits could be achieved in other ways it was a no brainer: Britain had to re-assert its sovereignty and re-take its place among the free nations of the world.
Some of this unhappiness was expressed in terms of a loss of control to "faceless bureaucrats in Brussels", an antipathy to high levels of immigration, a protest against austerity and a perceived relative loss of status, a rebellion against the status quo in general and "the establishment" in particular. But the bottom line is that they didn't like being treated as the equals of Europeans they had either defeated or liberated in war, or indeed which they saw as feckless or corrupt compared to their own upright, hardworking and high achieving selves.
In truth they never knew a lot about or cared much for whatever the EU was supposed to represent. It was fine if it made life easier as a tourist or as a businessman abroad, but basically the EU had no business meddling in UK affairs back home. "Europe" was what was happening across the channel among the foreigners. The UK was effectively a continent and world power all on its own.
Many commentators have referred to this mockingly as a grand nostalgia for empire, but it could just as easily be seen as a turning inwards to focus on unmet emotional, social, and economic needs. Members of the Eton and Oxbridge educated ruling class may dream of the UK regaining an independent role in a multi-polar world order, but for many ordinary leave voting and leave supporting Britons it was more about wishing to retain a slightly privileged place in a social and economic pecking order increasingly dominated by immigrants and forces they could no longer control or understand.
One of the consequences of the Remain campaign focusing on the economic problems associated with Brexit is that it doesn't explain why so few Leave voters have actually changed their minds even as the economic news becomes more and more foreboding. Some of this can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that few Leave voters have yet been personally effected by the economic damage Brexit is doing. Many are either retired or economically secure and so can cheerfully waffle on about the importance of sovereignty and freedom while others are suffering the consequences.
But the emotional drivers of Brexit remain much the same particularly among those who don't see themselves as having benefited from "creeping Europeanisation", globalisation, or economic growth. They see themselves as being squeezed by austerity, immigrants doing better than they are, and Europeans they don't know or understand running the show.
While Opinion polls generally show double digit majorities now supporting Remain much of this is due to older Leave voters dying off, and younger Remain supporters joining electoral registers. Despite their disastrous performance in government, the Tories are maintaining a slim lead in general election opinion polling, and Theresa May has maintained double digit leads over Jeremy Corbyn as preferred Prime Minister.
So one could be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the UK political landscape since the 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election. Brexiteers are still hell bent on securing Brexit even if this turns out to be an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit and few see Corbyn offering much of an alternative even if there is now a popular majority for Brexit being reversed.
Some Remain voters now even see Brexit offering a necessary and unavoidable catharsis forcing the UK to come to terms with a changed world order and deal with unresolved internal tensions which it would rather not have to do:
There is something surreal about these last days before Brexit - just 39 now. There is still no visibility on a deal, and no clarity on a no deal. There is no parliament that seems to have a grasp on managing the slide into the unknown, other than humiliating the prime minister in vote after vote and then proposing little as an alternative. The scene outside parliament is a collection of Brexit doomsday soothsayers and naysayers, each with chants and flags and signs and regalia.
Elsewhere, stranger things are happening: pro-remain campaigners have started stripping off, we are arguing about Winston Churchill and Boer War concentration camps, and children are marching in the streets chanting: "F**k Theresa May." It feels like the last days in the compound of a cult that once flourished but is now finally and fatally besieged.
The end of such a cult, that operates outside the bounds of common sense, is inevitable. Not only that, it should be welcomed. It is time. It is time for the country to come to terms with the fact that it has for too long been in denial about some of its fundamental flaws - and if a messy unplanned Brexit is the way to do that, then so be it.
These past few weeks are proof that Brexit, maybe even a hard Brexit, is now looking more likely. Yet, counterintuitively, it also looks like it is necessary. The country is paralysed and polarised ahead of next month's deadline in a fever of predictions, lies and anticipations that will only break when the reality bites.
Nesrine Malik goes on to say:
Also finally exposed is the unbridgeable gap, both economic and cultural, between centre and peripheries, between the winners and the losers. There is a double nihilism about Brexit. There are many who feel like they have nothing to lose from a no-deal scenario, while also savouring the prospect of trouble ahead. This is what happens when a country is fed a diet of crisis as glamorous film reel. You cannot fight this appetite for martyrdom with technical arguments about processing times at Dover: these perverse fantasies can only be vanquished by an actual crisis.
And that is why the Brexit reckoning must happen. A humbling must come to pass. From the beginning, Brexit created its own momentum. Once the question was asked - in or out? - all the grievances, justified or not, could be projected on it, with "in" being widely seen as a vote for the status quo. Within this frame, nothing else matters - not economic predictions, not warnings about medicines running out, nor threats of the need to stockpile foods. The remain campaign could not have done anything differently: it lost the moment the question was asked.
And so, maybe, in the end, we will finally believe that immigration is necessary for an economy and an NHS to function, that the inequality between the south-east and the rest of Britain is unsustainable, that our political class is over-pedigreed and under-principled. We might even believe that other crises, such as climate change, are real, too.
Maybe, in the end, the country outside Europe will find its stride by confronting its issues rather than blaming them on others, and forging its own way. But there is only one way to find out. What a shame Brexit is that path - but better to have a path than none at all.
But again, it is easy for Remainers to become philosophical about Brexit if they will not be the ones to bear the brunt of its worst effects. Sometimes a crisis can have a cathartic effect and change a country for the better, but sometimes it can also lead to an ever descending spiral of decline and despair. The last major European power to feel it was falling behind its rivals started a World War to try to redress that perceived imbalance...
Often times when I see Brexiteers spout their nonsense on the TV or in Parliament I get this almost uncontrollable urge to let them have an almighty comeuppance: to wish the hardest of hard Brexit on them followed by an inexorable decline. But then I remember it will be the weakest in British society who will suffer the most. I also wonder if the humiliation of the UK is in the EU's larger self-interest. After all the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the humiliating outcome of the First, and the EU is built on the principle that even the defeated have rights which must be protected.
But I think we are reaching a tipping point in the EU as well. Donald Tusk spoke for many when he wondered "what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely." If the UK decides to go through with a no deal Brexit it will find it has few friends in Europe offering a generous trade deal or even basic cooperation on many issues of common interest. Previously quiescent issues like Gibraltar or Sovereign bases in Cyprus could flair up and N. Ireland will become de-stabilized. The EU will become focused on addressing the problems of its own members and any travails the UK endures will barely register.
So the question arises whether Brexit is the only or the best way to address the political contradictions of the UK and whether the EU would be better off without those contradictions being refracted onto a European plane. My own view is that Brexit will be an enormous tragedy for both the UK and the EU and will cause long lasting and irreversible damage to both. The best option is still to delay and ultimately reverse Brexit before it becomes irreversible. But even I have to concede this is becoming less and less likely and a very damaging Brexit is in prospect.
EU leaders have been quite clear from the outset that "damage limitation" has been their prime objective. It looks increasingly likely that their efforts will have been in vain. The UK may come to resolve some of its internal contradictions, but at the cost of its place as a major power in the world. Remarkably, Brexit will have achieved the very reverse of its stated objectives.
I have previously asked the question Can a no deal Brexit be a good thing? and came up pretty empty. I still have seen no new evidence to change my view.