London is trying to stir from its Brexit referendum trance to mend its relationship with the Old Continent and keep the country together.
“The Brexit dream is dying”, wrote Boris Johnson in his letter of resignation as Minister of Foreign Affairslittle more than two years after the referendum that determined Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. His resignation, together with that of Brexit Minister David Davis, followed Prime Minister Teresa May’s decision to steer the country towards a “soft Brexit”, a free trade area for agricultural and industrial products based on EU rules. The decision to pursue a soft Brexit was deemed necessary in order to save the British economy, which is closely integrated with Europe, and also to avoid a return of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
The negotiations will still continue to be difficult but the May Government seems to have finally made up its mind about the direction it intends to take after two lost years ofputting forward unrealistic proposals in which Britain would be able to cherry pick all of the advantages of EU membership, from free trade to access to the services market, without having to conform to the rules and common policies of belonging to the Union. A dream induced by the Brexit referendum trance and by a political class that has promoted and predicted improbable benefits while concealing the certain problems and heightened risks.
In politics, as in life, sooner or later dreams have to be tempered by reality. The gap between the rose-tinted aspirations of the “leavers” and the hard reality of Brexit has become strikingly apparent. From the loss of funding for agriculture, scientific research and the Erasmus student exchange programme, to the devaluation of the pound by around 10%, as the withdrawal from the EU internal market draws nearer, the gradual reduction in both foreign and domestic investment in Britain has been felt as has the relocation of companies and other organisations to other EU states. The aerospace giant Airbus has been very clear about the riskto the future employment ofits 15,000 staff in the UK if the uncertainty surrounding future relations with the EU continues. In the country that for a century attracted Europe’stop talent, the news that in 2017 more than 13,000 British citizens requested citizenship in other EU countries, is just the latest of many alarm bells. There has been a significantshrinkage of national economic growth, placing the UK now at the tail end of the G7 economies.
Even more worryingly, the decision to implement a referendum decision won with only 52% of the votes has created, or reopened, a series of fractures in Britain’s institutional, political and social fabric. The opposition to a “hard Brexit” has included a protest on the streets of London involving more than 100,000 people in a country that rarely sees mass political demonstrations, just as the House of Lords approved 14 amendments opposing the government’s proposed legislation concerning withdrawal from the EU, including the removal of the date of withdrawal. The House of Commons managed in extremis to eliminate the modifications requested by the Lords, but the government’s grip in Westminster is far from solid. The Conservatives, in fact, lost their absolute majority in the commons at the 2017 elections and May’s government now relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Precisely Northern Ireland, where 56% of electors voted to remain in the EU, represents the deepest and most serious wound that Brexit is reopening. Thirty years of low intensity civil war, more than 3,500 deaths including those of 1,800 civilians, as well as 47,000 wounded have not been forgotten, and today murals in Belfast still depict the fallen who are remembered in songs such as U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. The 1998 Peace Accords were successful however and the wound partially healed also because with everyone beneath the same roof of the EU it became a little less important, both symbolically and tangibly, whether rule came from London or Dublin. In fact, the participation of both capitals in the internal market led to the elimination of more than 300 miles of borders with 250 crossings passed each day by more than 30,000 commuters. No more guards, barbed wire or CCTV cameras physically and politically separating the two parts of the island.
For this very reason, in a preliminary compromise on EU withdrawal reached with some difficulty in 2017, London had to accept a clause specifying that the two parties must find a future agreement that avoids a hard border for Northern Ireland and maintains“full alignment with those rules of the Single Market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”.However, this would imply that theUK remains in the Customs Union or that it concedes a special status to Northern Ireland, shifting the customs border into the sea between the two islands – an unacceptable option for the Northern Irish Unionists and Conservatives because it would lead to their nightmare of the detachment of Ulster from London and a shift closer to Dublin.
While in the Emerald Isle an old wound has started to bleed once more, on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall the political war drums have begun to sound again. In 2016 the majority of Scots (60%) voted to remain in the EU and the road to Brexit has given a boost to the secessionists that won a 45% share of the vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. The Scottish Parliament approved a binding motion to deny consent for the laws that regulate withdrawal from the EU, and have pushed to remain in the Customs Union. If the British government ignores the motion, it will provoke an unprecedented clash between London and Edinburgh that could also lead to another referendum in Scotland. In difference to 2014, however, being part of the EU, with the related access to funds and the European market, would be an incentive to secede from Great Britain in what represents another nightmare scenario for the UK government.
In fact, the issue of the Customs Union remains the key sticking point not only concerning economics but also the political, institutional and social spheres. In theory three scenarios are possible. In the most optimistic, Great Britain and EU would agree on a customs union, be that a de facto union if not in name, that would not only save the British economy but would avoid painful ruptureswith Northern Ireland and Scotland. The worst-case scenario is a failure of negotiations between London and Brussels, which from the 29 March 2019 would make Britain a foreign country with a fully effective border with the EU. In this case, in addition to an economic crisis, Britain would have to deal with an unprecedented political and institutional clash with the Scottish and Northern Irish parts of the United Kingdom.
The third scenario, which is what the May government is gambling on,would involve an agreement for free trade between Great Britain and EU. In such a scenario it will be very complicated but not impossible to find a way forwards that does not involve a hard border in Ireland, respect forEU rules concerning the internal market and the effective autonomy of London concerning trade policy and regulatory powers. Probably the latter element will be sacrificed in order to keep the Kingdom United, further upsetting the proponents of a hard Brexit. It remains to be seen whether the May government will find the strength to overcome internal Tory opposition. The resignations of Johnson and Davis promise a rude awakening from the Brexit dream, but their departures from government could avoid Brexit turning into a real nightmare.