In the Remain or Leave referendum held on 23 June 2016, the UK decided at 51.9% to leave the European Union (EU), the world’s largest economic and political partnership. Its Conservative government has triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, giving “notice to withdraw from the Union” with a two year deadline unless prior agreement is ratified. “Brexit” – a mashup of “British” and “Exit” – is therefore scheduled to take place on Friday, 29 March 2019 at 11 pm GMT. This is Brexit Day.
Mainstream media across the Anglosphere has portrayed Brexit as a fundamentally political divorce, involving a struggle between a sovereign nation (UK) and a quasi-federal central government (EU). Motivated self-interest is presumed to lie at the heart of this separation, the part of the United Kingdom and its national interest versus the authoritarian European Union and its contradictory objectives. This over-simplified narrative is presumed across the British political spectrum to be self evident. But is it really the case? It must needs perceive the EU as an rival or opponent, perverting the common market Britain joined in the 1970s into a totalitarian institution against the will of some or all of its member states. This is not only wrong but it rubbishes the decades hard work by British negotiators and civil servants bashing out the detail in every clause of every agreement the UK and the rest of Europe signed into; a consensus based on pragmatic self interest from the start. Small wonder the current clowns trying to bungle Brexit find at every turn the consequences of breaking this or that piece of European policy are a net loss to the UK.
There’s no solution that’s better for the UK because by default the UK has pushed its interests to great effect since 1971. That’s the reality of the EU/UK relationship.
So what exactly is the European Union?
Rising from the ashes of broken Europe following the end of World War II, the European Union is intricate amalgam of treaties, policies, laws, and agreements. It isn’t a sovereign entity. It isn’t federal. It’s a hybrid system of supranational and intergovernmental alliances, built on a vast internal single market developed between its 28 independent sovereign state members (the EU28).
The Far Right (so called populists) maps its traditional “us” and “them” proto-fascist paradigm onto the EU by encouraging discourse that faultily describes and personifies the EU as a foreign sovereign body, playing the part of an unelected totalitarian occupier. In the UK this role is covered by the UKIP political party and right-wing Conservatives, supported by half the oligarch-owned national media: Britain needs to fight to reclaim an economic and political freedom ceded to Brussels by turncoat past governments. It’s an evocative black-and-white argument that, while it may be dismissed by the pro-EU middle classes as ridiculously myopic and too politically self-serving, gained traction with disenfranchised working class voters from the Right and the Left.
The failure of government to provide for all strata of society is certainly a problem but only in the UK did the disenfranchised austerity-battered electorate find itself offered “Remain or Leave the EU” susceptible to conflation of protest vote, social unrest and years fear mongering about ‘dark’ hordes of migrants and refugees turning Britain into a Sharia state. It’s surprising the “Leave” vote didn’t win by a larger margin.
Since the UK decided to leave the EU the remaining 27 state members have been cast as villains in the media, for having no contingency plans, for not acquiescing to the latest cherry-picked policies of the procrastinating minority Government in London. Popular misconceptions have calcified into a received wisdom: an appeal to xenophobia legitimised as British nationalism, casting Europe as an opponent not an ally, and – most ludicrous – presuming a false equivalency in relative negotiating position. The UK is making the running here, self-sabotage by another name. How can the EU not be negotiating from the stronger position, not simply by dint of being the bigger economic bloc but because all the extant agreements the UK might look to break are already favourable, already exemplifying British self interest?
All this throws into relief what the EU is, in a nuts and bolts sense. Closer to reality would be the analogy of Brexit as an enormously complex breach of contract, where one party evokes a break clause but then wants all the favourable parts of the contract to remain in force while others – all of which, let’s not forget, were voluntarily and unanimously agreed – are selectively stricken from the record.
Every EU agreement represent a vast array of expertise, detailed studies, lengthy negotiations, millions of men hours, a blend of self-interest, compromise and consensus among the union’s 28 sovereign members.
Brexit’s real consequence is therefore not a “divorce” between two autonomous entities, with the UK wresting its sovereignty back, as it’s currently argued by mainstream media. Instead, it’s the greatest and stupidest breach of good faith in history.
In simple numbers the EU is a gestalt consequence of over 1,000,000 agreements, legal precedents, and unanimously ratified conventions. It has taken decades to draft, an unparalleled amount of monetary and human resources. Each of these million agreements were negotiated to serve the benefit EU28, including the UK. Each was signed and implemented freely by the individual sovereign state members. It should be no surprise we find navigating the maze of Brexit’s legal implications in a few short months is a ridiculously complex task, even if there were some route the UK could plot that wasn’t damaging itself at every turn.
From a legal perspective, if the UK leaves the EU without some umbrella deal, all extant EU agreements will be deemed annulled and will necessitate renegotiations. The EU state members and the rest of the world would be need to draft new ones with the UK unless somehow extant EU trade deals were inherited by the UK; and why should they be? The UK on its own won’t drive a better bargain with China than the EU as a super bloc.
Brexit will leave between three to four million Europeans living in the UK, and five to six million British citizens in the EU in an unsettling climate of uncertainty and displacement. By exiting the EU, the UK will also turn its back on all these people and for what? It would also lose out on influential partnership initiatives, which currently benefit:
Human rights and humanitarian aid (i.e. the European Convention on Human Rights, EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), and the European Development Fund (EDF));
On Brexit Day, the UK will stop profiting from all the above-mentioned European initiatives, current EU agreements, and the EU’s single market system. In claiming independence – or more accurately, dissociation – from the EU, the UK is self-sabotaging its diplomatic and economic relations with its allies and neighbours, as well as its impact on the world. The UK is turning back the clock not to some non-existent Imperial past but to the very real closed borders, narrowing horizons, individual lost freedom, dearth of talent and expertise (e.g. a third of NHS nurses are European born).
With Brexit, UK rejects Europe’s identity and unity, symbolized through the European flag’s gold stars of “unity, solidarity, and harmony among the people of Europe.” Instead, it hangs on an archaic notion of British greatness, aligning itself with a globally in vogue populist movemen – the current modus operandi of exploiting interests aiming to direct the working poor against their own best interests.
It is no surprise that Donald J. Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and the Far Right in Europe are happening at the same time. While Trump claims to make America great again, Brexit aims to take back control. Both Trumpism and Brexit ostensibly yearn to bring their nations back to a pseudo-glorious past and protect them from the predatory nature of transnational market (also known as free market fundamentalism). This distorted, antiquated, and populist ideology is already occasioning much economic and political instability, disturbing trade and migration, not to mention corroding the ‘spirit’ of an entire nation. Progress is hard won. Regression is an easy slide. In the league of nations it’s not encouraging to see one of the best degrading into terminal alethophobia.