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

Jan 23rd 2018

NEW HAVEN – The level of stock markets differs widely across countries. And right now, the United States is leading the world. What everyone wants to know is why – and whether its stock market’s current level is justified.

Jan 22nd 2018

This past week, I participated in a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court sponsored by the National Commission for Voter Justice (NCVJ).

Jan 21st 2018

The geopolitical developments in the Middle East over the past fifteen years have created new political and security dynamics engendered by the violent turmoil and profound concerns over the Iranian threat, shared by Israel and the Arab states.

Jan 21st 2018

Retiring Republican US senator Jeff Flake isn’t the first person to critique US president Donald Trump’s rocky relationship with the truth.

Jan 15th 2018

               

The daily circus that is the visible face of contemporary American politics keeps our gaze firmly fixed on the character of the ring-master: but it does so to our long-term cost.

Jan 14th 2018

A week after the release of a book depicting him as not intelligent enough and not mentally fit to be trusted as commander-in-chief, Donald Trump has done it again.

Jan 14th 2018

If there is to be an effective response to climate change, it will probably emanate from China. The geopolitical motivations are clear.

Jan 11th 2018

As the mid-term political campaigns begin, perhaps we should pause and think where this country is headed under the leadership of Trump, with the House and Senate in control of the Republican party—a party that has lost its soul and its way, failing to safeguard America’s national interest.

Jan 10th 2018

COPENHAGEN – A sunny day is the best time to check whether the roof is watertight. For economic policymakers, the proverbial sunny day has arrived: with experts forecasting strong growth, now is the best time to check whether we are prepared for the next recession.

Jan 8th 2018

WASHINGTON, DC – The just-released book about Donald Trump and his dysfunctional presidency (Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House) has left much of Washington reeling.

Jan 5th 2018

ABU DHABI – In Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East, the character of H.H., a novice in a religious group known as The League, describes a figurine depicting himself next to the group’s leader, Leo.

Jan 4th 2018

BERKELEY – The fact that inflation has remained stubbornly low across the global North has come as a surprise to many economic observers.

Dec 29th 2017

ATLANTA – While much of the world is busy dismantling monuments to oppressors, Russians are moving in the opposite direction, erecting statues to medieval warlords who were famous for their despotism. Understanding this revival can shed light on the direction of Russia’s politics.

Dec 28th 2017

WASHINGTON, DC – As US President Donald Trump decamped to his mansion-cum-private club in Palm Beach, Florida, for the holidays, he left Washington, DC, on edge.

Dec 20th 2017

MADRID – Once again, US President Donald Trump has taken a unilateral approach to foreign policy – this time, by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And once again, Trump has misinterpreted the realities of the Middle East.