The Brexit Catch

We may never know what swayed millions of British voters to forgo decades of close political and economic engagement with our continental neighbours, leave the safe harbour of Europe and head for the open sea. The Brexit post-mortem in the media has not given a conclusive answer to it so far.

Whether it was a fear of the political direction in which Europe was moving, an anti-establishment sentiment, immigration, or expression of the collective desire for Britain to break free from the EU straitjacket and steer its own course in the world (however mad this might seem) is irrelevant now. Britain changed on that June referendum day last year, and in the months since, and will change even more in the years to come because of that monumental vote.

Economically, the change may be for better or for worse. The way it will swing depends to a large extent on external factors over which British government has little control. Post-Brexit economic forecasts advanced by either of the camps on the opposite sides of the In/Out argument shouldn’t be believed with any greater faith than predictions of Mystic Meg. We won’t know this for sure until the end of this decade when the Brexit’s decree absolute is sealed and served, and probably not for some time afterwards.

Hard Brexiters who discount all risks to the future prosperity and international standing of Britain will not be around to pick up the pieces if the economy goes pear-shaped. They will disappear into their comfortable rat dens blaming everyone else but themselves. Doom’-and-gloom’ Remainers who see no future for Britain outside the EU will never acknowledge that Britain is strong enough both politically and economically to turn the burden of Brexit into advantage.

We are all in the same boat now, whether we voted Leave or Remain, so let’s not make a ‘Titanic success’ of Brexit, as Boris Johnson recently uttered in his typically incoherent mumble of a Freudian slip.

If handled properly, Brexit need not end in tears.

The irony of Brexit, what can be called the Brexit catch, is that in order to make a success of it Britain will need goodwill of its EU partners, and rather a lot of it. Whether the Europeans will feel charitable sitting across the negotiating table from Boris Johnson and the cohort of deathwish Tory Brexiters is far from certain. The proponents of hard Brexit seem wanting at the moment to burn all bridges with Europe and paddle in a dinghy across the Atlantic and further around the world, which borders on insanity. Let’s hope they come back to their senses before it’s too late.

If Europe decides to help Britain flourish post-Brexit it will not be because the Italians want to keep on selling us gallons of their delightful Prosecco, or Germans their reliable fast cars, however economically desirable that would be for them, but because our European neighbours care enough not to see Britain fail abysmally. Britain has always been and will always remain a prominent member of the European family of nation states, even when it keeps on stubbornly denying its roots. The Germans, Poles, Dutch, French, Italians and pretty everyone else in Europe still remember the role Britain played in standing up to the Nazi hegemony and helping Europe regain its freedom and dignity. Britain has used much of the credit it once had, but I think there is still enough of it left to get us through Brexit without breaking the bank.

Those in Europe who no longer feel that Britain deserves any favours, and for a good reason one should add, may nonetheless let Britain off the hook once again and allow it access to the Single Market with few preconditions attached and no insistence on keeping the borders open to all. They will hopefully take the view that Britain having no say in the future of Europe and being relegated on the world stage to the status of a minor power will be punishment enough.

Once France and Germany will have elected their new leaders later this year, it will be in Europe’s best interest to conclude agreement with Britain quickly and with little acrimony. Brexit in combination with the elevation of Donald Trump to the White House offers EU an opportunity to assert its power within Europe and across the wider world. Wasting time and energy on trying to impose tough exit conditions on Britain to humiliate and make an example of it for other wavering EU members would be counterproductive in the longer term. Even if Europe succeeded in achieving that, which I doubt, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. As not too distant history has taught us, imposing onerous conditions on a great nation state which has means to undermine Europe’s future economic and military security would be an act of political folly.

Europe should instead seize the opportunity which Brexit offers to it. Without Britain pressing longer the brake, EU can focus its efforts on reforming itself in order to bring greater integration in certain key areas, particularly foreign policy, defence, border control, taxation and budgetary controls.

However, this is achievable only if Germany asserts its leadership in Europe and twists the arms of other EU members to go along with it. Germany is the only European country which has both the political and economic means to do that and to ensure that the EU project prevails. Germany’s recent history has inoculated it to a considerable extent against the ills of fascism, authoritarianism and intolerance which other European nations, including Britain, still harbour in their cores, and its principled stance in defence of European democratic ethos would give it moral authority to force the reforms through. Europe and the world need a new champion of democracy and moral high ground now that the United States and Britain are in political disarray and toy with fascism and isolationism.

Let us hope that sanity prevails, both in Britain and Europe. If Chancellor Merkel succeeds in winning her fourth term and the French send Le Pen packing, I am confident that realpolitik will guide the EU in its Brexit dealings with Britain

There are many ifs in this blog, but I remain hopeful. Like everything else in life, the future is an open book. This lack of certainty need not be a bad thing. It may help to better focus minds of politicians both in Britain and Europe once their ideological hang-ups and indignation subside. To paraphrase Peter Pan in the face of adversity, to go under would be an awfully big adventure… and so to survive a near death experience, one might add.

Implementing Brexit requires time, not least because of the complexities of unraveling four decades of economic and political ties. I have never been a fan of Theresa May or the Tories, but not setting out details of the Brexit plan in advance has been a wise move in my view. It would be futile and counterproductive to do so before the French and German general elections are done and settled later this year. She should not shut the doors to any solution and keep all options on the table.

Whatever Theresa May and her government’s views on Brexit, the democratic process must be respected. Parliament must be fully involved in Brexit and give its approval to any agreement her government negotiates with EU, including any transitional or interim deal. What is most worrying about Brexit is not the outcome of the referendum, but the readiness of certain prominent Tory politicians and far right hate mongers, including in the press, to trample over the centuries of British democracy. Britain can survive or even flourish post-Brexit, but won’t survive undermining of British democratic institutions and long established constitutional principles, of which parliamentary supremacy, independence of the judiciary and non-politicised civil service are the keystones. The reluctance of certain leading Tories, including government ministers, to reprimand or sideline those who peddle such undemocratic and un-British sentiments needs to stop otherwise Britain will be heading to a very dark place indeed.

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