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Brexit: A tragicomedy in the making

The confusion and delay of the ongoing Brexit process has not endeared the politicians in Britain to their people. Nonetheless the lack of agreement going forward highlights how fraught with risk Brexit actually is for the UK, in economic and political terms. Threats to the Union of the United Kingdom itself emerge, underlining the stresses leaving the European Union will place on the country that once ruled the world.

While a certain segment of the British people may well intensely dislike the idea of the UK being part of something bigger, EU membership was not especially controversial until the late 2010’s. This was shortly after the post 2008 economic crisis began to create the potential for fractures in the European Economic Union. Spain, Greece and to a lesser extent Italy, underwent severe economic crises that threatened to undermine their membership of the EU. Worse still for them their membership of the Euro currency limited their monetary policy options; they couldn’t print more of their own money in order to fight off the effects of deep recession because their monetary policy was under the control of the European Central Bank.

What did all of this have to do with Brexit? Quite a bit actually. The economic suffering of countries like Greece and Spain, struggling with employment in excess of 25%, fed into Euroscepticism in Britain. The right wing of the Conservative Party has long distrusted the EU as a Franco-German federal project erasing the traditional boundaries of national identity. It found common cause with UKIP, the strongly anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. Many Tory councillors and even two MPs joined UKIP in an effort to pressure David Cameron into calling an EU referendum. By this stage high immigration into the UK was beginning to create a serious controversy, and he gave in. Against advice, Cameron ran on a Tory platform promising an in/out referendum. Having come from behind to beat favourite David Davis to win the Tory leadership in 2005 and then seen off Labour rivals Blair and Brown, Cameron had never tasted serious defeat. He never saw it coming on June 24 2016.

It was an extraordinary gamble to call a referendum just when the worst of the local council budget cuts of austerity, with a harsh impact on the lives of poorer people still fresh in their memory. Many working class voters outside the London area, resentful of being left behind by London and the south east of the UK, chose to leave the EU. They blamed immigration for being economically left behind. However many of the structural weaknesses that actually held their communities back had more to do with a lack of modern educational systems, vocational training and infrastructure. There is a strong case to be made that the EU itself was never the real issue.

The economic structure of Britain, with investment skewed heavily toward London finally came back to bite metropolitan elites where it really hurt. Cameron ran a lazy campaign which never really addressed the elephant in the room (immigration). He was neither able to meaningfully restrict immigration nor did he make a positive case for how immigration benefited the UK. The economic growth models of nearly all major countries is dependent on population growth to some extent. Immigration has been a factor in the UK maintaining GDP growth of around 3% annually, impressive for a Western developed country. By not explaining this to sceptical voters, politicians ceded the argument to xenophobes.

Now that Boris Johnson is planning a No Deal exit, the UK is stuck. Parliament will not allow a No Deal Brexit, because it is rightly feared to be economically damaging. It means that there will be no framework in place to ensure smooth trade in goods and service, leading to short term chaos. Far from withdrawing from the EU, No Deal will tie Britain to possibly decades of negotiations with local and national governments in Europe over trade agreements. Counter-terrorism will also take a significant hit, at least until British police regain access to European databases on terrorist movements, also making criminal gangs harder to track.

On the other hand, accepting a deal means having a ‘backstop’ in place to protect Northern Ireland’s peace process, which means that Northern Ireland will be part of the Single Market and Customs Union. Britain will not. This is a recipe for the potential disintegration of the UK. Any kind of border checks between Northern and southern Ireland will run the risk of attacks by nationalist dissidents because currently there is no border between them to preserve the peace. This increases the risk of a return to the dark days of the Troubles; a euphemism for Britain’s long war in Northern Ireland.

In many respects Northern Ireland is the heart of the problem. The EU is secondary to NATO in ensuring peace on the continent. This is the case in Ireland, where EU membership is central to the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Already, some opinion polls there suggest a slight edge to the nationalist case to unify Ireland should a referendum on leaving the UK happen. Violence is always lurking beneath the surface in Northern Ireland, as the recent revival of a new IRA threat shows. British politicians who ignore this reality are playing with fire. No Deal will drastically increase the risk of a return to conflict because it means a hard physical border between south Ireland and the North, an idea which many northern Irish hate. In addition to this a No Deal Brexit led by a right wing Tory government will also increase the risk of Scotland seceding from the UK. That would cause Britain itself to cease to exist.

Britain is no longer a superpower. Nor does it manufacture many of the goods that are most craved by hungry markets in China and India, the rising superpowers of the East. The strength of the British economy lies in services, a sector that heavily benefited from EU membership and the single market considerably. The failing negotiations with Ireland only highlight how EU membership enhances geopolitical power. With the EU to back it up, Ireland was able to successfully insist on the backstop against UK wishes. Britain is giving up on an enhanced global presence by leaving the EU. It hopes that a special relationship and trade deal with America will enable it to maintain some prestige in the world. However the US is pivoting to Asia, and more to the point it will not accept anything that threatens the Northern Ireland peace process. The result of Brexit could mean a diminished country with Scotland and Northern Ireland gone, leaving only England and Wales. This is the polar opposite of what ardent Brexiteers had argued Brexit would mean.

The best way to make Brexit work is to keep it as ‘soft’ as possible – continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. Anything else leads to No Deal, which risks the future of the British Union. It also potentially threatens the futures of both European citizens living in the UK and British people living in the EU. European origin people in Britain would be well advised to secure their status now, by either applying for permanent residency or settled status in Britain, if they are eligible. They have until 31 December 2020 to apply for settled status if there is No Deal.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Parliament does not want to Leave the EU at all, as it refuses to vote either for or against a Deal. Given the loss of global influence and potential economic stagnation or chaos that a hard Brexit will lead to, this is understandable. But it defies the democratic outcome of a referendum which Parliament is bound by. The UK voted to leave, and it has to leave. There will be a price to be paid. How the government manages tensions in Northern Ireland and Scotland’s desire to stay in the EU will dictate future events.

The United Kingdom lives in tragicomic, yet interesting times.

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