Dec 4th 2018

From Brexit to Eternity

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

LONDON – British members of Parliament will soon have to make one of the most difficult political decisions of their lives. The choice is between approving the Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated with the European Union, crashing out of the EU with no deal, or trying to reverse the exit process altogether. With respect to the third option, it has been two and a half years since a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the EU, and recent polls now find that a majority would prefer to remain.

The decision to hold a referendum on EU membership was made by May’s Conservative predecessor, David Cameron, who seems to have been focused more on politics than the national interest. Cameron was hoping to defang a faction of right-wing English nationalists and opportunists in his party, but his inept gambit blew up in his face and he promptly resigned, leaving to his successor the unenviable task of interpreting what the referendum outcome actually meant. She decided that “Brexit means Brexit,” and has since been leading a process that she herself originally opposed.

From the start, May’s task was complicated by three factors. First, the Brexiteers had woven a web of mendacity and delusion about what withdrawing from the EU would actually mean. They promised an easy exit that would allow Britain to have its cake and eat it. The country would gain much, lose nothing, and sail off to a promised land free of EU regulations. As masters of their own fate, Britons would cut new trade deals with whomever they liked. Yet, to the Brexiteers’ apparent surprise, the EU could not and would not allow a country to enjoy the full benefits of membership without accepting the obligations that come with it.

The second complication was that Britons had a lot to learn about sovereignty. Generally speaking, sovereignty enables a country to secure its own interests. But this usually requires working with others. What the Brexiteers seem not to have realized is that the 27 remaining EU member states have far more power to pursue their own interests collectively than they would on their own. And that is exactly what they have done throughout the Brexit negotiations.

Critics of May’s exit deal complain that it will give Britain even less say over its own affairs than it has today. But that would still be the case outside of the EU. Whether rules governing economic, environmental, and social relations are written in Brussels or elsewhere hardly matters. If Britain wants to do business with others, it will have to agree to common rules. Once it is out in the cold, it will have to decide with which economic bloc to align, and then accept that bloc’s rules.

This is not about sovereignty or satrapy. It is simply a question of whether we would prefer China’s approach to intellectual property and technology transfers over those of the West, or European food and agricultural standards over those of the US. If Britain insists on pursuing a purist definition of sovereignty, it will find only grief and isolation.

The third complication was of May’s own making. Immediately upon entering into the exit negotiations, she started laying down unnecessary red lines. The language of the Brexit referendum did not include any mention of the EU customs union and single market, or of the European Court of Justice. But May announced that Britain must leave the jurisdiction of all three.

As was foreseeable, this immediately raised the thorny issue of the Irish border. While Northern Ireland would remain in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland would still be an EU member. As long as each is still in the EU customs union and single market, this poses no problem. But if either were to leave, customs checkpoints would have to be established at all major border crossings, with potentially dangerous implications for the Good Friday Agreement, which restored peace in Northern Ireland a generation ago.

The exit agreement that May negotiated attempts to resolve all of these complications by squaring various circles and temporizing on questions for which there is no possible answer. After March 29, 2019, the UK will enter a transition phase in which it will remain a member of the single market and customs union. A so-called backstop will ensure that there is no hard border in Ireland. Not surprisingly, the deal satisfies neither extreme Brexiteers nor the millions of people who voted to remain in the EU.

May is now confronting Parliament with the choice of accepting her deal or crashing out of the EU. She insists that no other compromise is available, and that this is the only way to bring an end to a debate that has divided the country. But with a wafer-thin majority in Parliament, it is not clear that she has the votes she needs.

Should May’s proposal fail, the Brexiteers would have the UK leave with no deal at all. But that outcome would face significant opposition. Others want an outcome building on the “Norway model.” It would involve membership of the single market and customs union, with acceptance of the rulebooks for both, but freedom to go it alone elsewhere. Still others – including the 700,000 people who marched through London in October – think that there should be a “people’s vote” on any final exit deal.

The argument against a second referendum is that it would be deeply divisive, especially if it leads to a reversal of the first referendum. But this rather misses the point. The hardline Brexiteers will reject any compromise with the EU. As ideological purists, they will not be satisfied until the UK is fully out of the EU, even if it means jumping off a cliff.

Happily, the British public is unlikely to accept that option. So, whatever happens, the Brexit debate will rumble on. In the meantime, we Britons should apologize to our friends around the world. Our national spectacle of self-harm must be growing tiresome.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 6th 2018

PRINCETON – The election result in Italy, where populists and far-right parties topped the polls, following the twin disasters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, seems certain to harden a common liberal belief: the people brought these calamities on

Mar 5th 2018

President Donald Trump finally appears poised to make good on his promised threats to slam the door on free trade and erect walls around the country’s economy.

Mar 2nd 2018

CAMBRIDGE – Most economic forecasters have largely shrugged off recent advances in artificial intelligence (for example, the quantum leap

Feb 27th 2018

NEW HAVEN – The spin is all too predictable. With the US stock market clawing its way back from the sharp correction of early February, the mindless mantra of the great bull market has returned.

Feb 23rd 2018

NEW YORK – When Donald Trump took office early last year, many pundits believed that he would settle into his presidency and pivot to normality. But a large number of America’s mental health experts didn’t see it that way.

Feb 23rd 2018

LONDON – Almost exactly 20 years ago, after months of delicate and difficult negotiation, leaders of Northern Ireland’s two main political camps – Catholic nationalists and republicans on one side; Protestant unionists on the other – signed the Good Friday Agreement, ending more than 30 years of

Feb 19th 2018

Could “fake news” have helped determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

Feb 19th 2018

MADRID – When, on a visit to Warsaw in 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt suddenly dropped to his knees before the Monument to the Ghetto Uprising, Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s communist leader, whispered, “wrong monument.” Gomułka would have preferred a tribute to Poland’s fallen soldiers in Wo

Feb 19th 2018

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

Feb 16th 2018

At last year’s opening ceremony of the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth Congress, President Xi Jinping proclaimed his belief that China was on the precipice of becoming a great global power. He declared that China was no longer a poor country.

Feb 14th 2018

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today.

Feb 13th 2018

WASHINGTON, DC – It’s gotten to the point where one might almost feel sorry for Donald Trump. While that “almost” reflects a gap too wide for Trump’s opponents to bridge, it can be said that February has, thus far, been cruel to the US president, though he clearly is no innocent victim.

Feb 8th 2018

PRINCETON – Consider the disaster of American foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

Feb 7th 2018

We have been talking about this for the last 12 months: when will financial markets realise that the amazing performance of 2017 was not sustainable? When will stock markets adjust? Are we approaching the next big market crash? When will the bubble burst?

Feb 1st 2018

CHICAGO – In the early days of 2018, the Russian economy is stagnating. This is no statistical blip: the average annual growth rate in 2008-2017 for Russia was just 1.2%.

Jan 31st 2018

SYDNEY – Imagine that you, like me, are a typical product of Western liberal democracy, and are invited to give a lecture to a group of Chinese students in Beijing or Shanghai on its benefits.

Jan 30th 2018

LONDON – China’s recently released GDP data for 2017 confirm it: the country’s dramatic rise, with the concomitant increase in its global economic relevance, is not slowing down.

Jan 30th 2018

MADRID – It has been a confusing couple of years for “Davos man” – the members of the global hyper-elite who gather each year for the World Economic Forum’s flagship conference to mull over the challenges the world faces.

Jan 28th 2018

NEW HAVEN – Protectionist from the start, US President Donald Trump’s administration has now moved from rhetoric to action in its avowed campaign to defend US workers from what Trump calls the “carnage” of “terrible trade deals.” Unfortunately, this approach is backward-looking at best.

Jan 25th 2018

NEW YORK – We were warned.