Wednesday, June 16

Jumping The Brexit Shark

For the last several weeks, I have been following the news out of the UK about the Parliament’s vote on PM Theresa May’s foredoomed plan for Brexit, including one installment of “Prime Minister’s questions,” which, for obvious reasons, centered on the still-falling debris from the May government’s unprecedented 230-vote blow-up of Mrs. May's Brexit deal. It had all the tragic dignity of, say, Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy:  you know what is going to happen, but for that very reason, you simply cannot bring yourself to avert your gaze. I was all the more horrified because, knowing the Parliament vote was imminent and that it would be followed by the 29 March deadline imposed by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, I had begun some weeks before to read about the European Union (EU), Brexit, and the consequences of both for the UK. In other words, I jumped the shark and began to teach myself at least the rudiments of EU governance and the consequences of the impending exit -- which by now will probably be a no-deal "crash-out" of the UK therefrom. At this point – full disclosure -- I probably know just enough to be dangerous. But what I did learn, and what I found most fascinating, in a kind of watching-a-python-swallow-a-full-grown-goat-whole kind of way, are the similarities motivating both Brexit and the election of the US’s first overtly fascist President in Donald Trump.

If you place as trivial a value on your peace of mind as I do, and if you are interested in following my meandering footsteps across the minefield of Brexit politics, you can do no better than to read two books, both of which could serve as textbooks for an entry-level course we might call “Brexit 101”:  Brexit:  What the Hell Happens Now by Ian Dunt (hereafter Brexit) and Well, You Did Ask – Why the UK Voted to Leave the EU by Michael Ashcroft and Kevin Culwick (hereafter Ask). Mr. Dunt does an immense service, especially for us non-Europeans, by setting the proper context for Brexit by means of an illuminating discussion of the true purpose of the by-now-infamous Article 50. The relevant section of that terse 300-or-so-word paragraph is as follows:

The treaties [governing membership in the EU, together with all other ancillary agreements relating thereto] shall cease to apply to the State in question [, i.e., to the State seceding from the EU] from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member States concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period. [boldface added]

The clock has been ticking off the two years ever since 29 March 2017, when the British  government gave official notice of the results of the Brexit referendum and its intent to withdraw from the EU. Hence the "magic date" of 29 March 2019. Dunt goes on to comment The important fact is that Article 50 is brutal. ... [T]he former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato [the author of Article 50] said shortly after the Brexit vote "My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there, but never used." 

But Article 50 turned out to be a "safety valve" only in the same sense that the nuclear self-destruct device installed in the starship Nostromo in the movie Alien was a similar "safety valve". So the British public, via the Brexit referendum, led first by PM Cameron and subsequently by PM May, acted the part of Ellen Ripley and actually used the "safety valve". Article 50's purpose is punitive:  as Dunt says Article 50 will make any country that leaves the EU suffer. Given the events of the past two years, combined with the ineptitude of PM May's Brexit ministers (e.g., Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and David Davis ... keep reading), Article 50 promises to fulfill this punitive purpose spectacularly well. One can think of Article 50 in much the same terms with which one thinks of a nuclear deterrent:  both are intended never to be used, but if they ever are actually used, deterrence has failed and catastrophe is the result.

Like the election of Donald Trump, much of the support for Brexit in the referendum was purely emotional. Says Dunt, quoting Aaron Banks, millionaire supporter of Brexit, As Aaron Banks said ... "Facts don't work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It's the Trump success".  The following lines from Dunt should strike a responsive chord among Americans:  Those in favor of Brexit closed their ears to discussions about complexity. [Despite being a short book, Dunt's Brexit is full to bursting with witheringly comprehensive and dauntingly technical discussions of just these complexities. -- JRC] A political culture took hold where baseless optimism was prized over sobriety. With the US stock market going up and down more erratically than Stormy Daniels' knickers, is anyone "tired of winning" yet?

Again, as with Trump, one of the most salient issues driving the Brexit controversy and referendum was the issue of immigration. If anything, immigration is an even more volatile issue in the UK than in the US.  I say that because under the EU constitution, one of the explicit goals is to encourage and to facilitate immigration among member states. That is the purpose of the visa-less travel facilitated by the Schengen zone, for which the US has no equivalent. As Ashworth and Culwick say in Ask, People associated the EU with excessive immigration, pointless rules and regulations, and having to pay for other countries' economic problems. Does anyone hear distinctly Trumpian echoes of skepticism, often outright hostility, to immigration (both legal and illegal), the proliferation of rules and regulations (e.g., coal mines' dumping of waste into streams), and paying for other countries' economic problems (e.g., irritation about NATO nations not paying "their fair share," as though NATO were a group dinner where people split the check)?

But the immigration issue is, in both the EU and the UK, by far the most volatile issue. It is volatile for two reasons:  one emotional, the other economic.  In some cases, Ashworth and Culwick note in Ask, there are persistent ethnic divisions that separate British citizens from immigrants:  Immigrants are a specific caste, asserted one Ask interviewee. No Brit will invite an immigrant home for dinner. Maybe by the second of third generation you will be allowed to be a real friend to a Brit. (Please note that I make no judgment as to whether this assessment is objectively true or not. But it is indisputably a feeling that, right or wrong, is shared by a number of immigrants to Britain about the desirability on the part of Britons of immigrants and immigration.) Economically and in terms of trade, there is the intimate interlinking of free movement within the EU and access to the single market, a point Dunt recurs to again and again in Brexit. This is where the rubber really meets the road vis a vis Trump's trade policy.

[T]he influential Brussels-based Bruegel think tank released a report arguing that the EU should concede on [the issue of visa-free movement] a la the Schengen zone.  Unlike freedom of goods, services, and capital, the free movement of people was political, not economic [argued Bruegel]. 

David Davis

Donald Trump could teach a master class on the Bruegel conclusion, though Trump's version of such a class would conjure the demons of MS-13 and organized crime, while simultaneously deferring to European cultural fears of immigrants from the Levant.  One spark of optimism in Brexit is Dunt's speculation that an "emergency brake" on immigration into the UK, limiting immigration to perhaps 50,000 immigrants per year or a temporary 5- to 7-year suspension of free movement thereto might be agreeable to both the EU and the UK. But Dunt pulls back on the reins after a flash of tentative optimism:  But would Brexiters accept it? The answer to that is probably no. Given Trump's free-floating xenophobia, the answer would most likely be the same for him. Once again, Trump as an individual and the EU as a community, or at least the "Leave" faction, are in agreement.

Trump and PM May's Brexit ministers also share, not only a lack of elementary professional competence, but, also like Trump, a common predisposition to incoherence.  In order to make the reading of this column as pain-free as possible, I restrict myself to citing only one example from Boris Johnson, with the strict understanding that analogous examples populate the portfolios of Liam Fox and David Davis. Johnson, Fox, and Davis are often referred to in the British press as "The Three Musketeers". I would prefer the sobriquet "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight".

Liam Fox
Boris Johnson

In a Telegraph column days after the [Brexit referendum] vote, Johnson wrote "British people will still be able to go and work in the EU. To live, to travel, to study; to buy homes and settle down." He was describing freedom of movement. This would imply Britain was staying in the single market. In his next Telegraph column, Johnson promised the exact opposite:  Britain would end freedom of movement and strike a free trade deal with the EU, both of which would only be possible if we left the single market.

Makes one positively nostalgic for "covfefe," dunnit?

Rather than rehearse in detail the arguments of Brexit and Ask, for which I have neither the time nor the space, it might be best to take a step or two back and contemplate the horror scenario that begins Dunt's book:  the vision of the UK simply crashing out of the EU with no agreement to mitigate the Article 50 apocalypse, e.g., traffic jams on both sides of the Channel Tunnel, diabetics running out of insulin, cancer patients running out of chemotherapy drugs, divorces (and marriages and child-custody rulings) recognized on one side of the English Channel but not the other, planes unable to leave from Heathrow or Gatwick, etc. (Remember:  planes are allowed in and out because of treaties between, e.g., the US and EU -- not the US and the UK -- but by Article 50, landing rights between the US and the UK have been abrogated. The only sovereignty on which American planes may land is the EU, no longer the UK. These treaties would have to be renegotiated.) If anything, Dunt's horror story is excessively optimistic. Leaving the EU, like Trump's purely discretionary tariff war with China, Canada, etc., is a grand instance of the cutting off of one's nose despite the consequences to one's face.

In the days leading up to 29 March, we would do well to remember:  sometimes the worst can happen, "baseless optimism" notwithstanding. There is such a thing as "toxic optimism". Even if you think you would never get tired of winning.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Shark ... Pixabay ... Public domain
Tiger shark ... Albert Kok ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
EU flag and Union jack ... ... Public domain
"Blue and bitter" sign ... Richard Leeming ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
PM Cameron resigning ... Flickr ... Public domain (OGL 3)
Gay Pride London ... Katy Blackwood ... CC by SA 4.0
PM May and Trump ... White House ... Public domain
Boris Johnson ... Chatham House ... CC by 2.0
Liam Fox ... Flickr ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
David Davis ... UK Parliament ... Public domain



1 Comment

  • A good read as ever, James. Your summarising statement serves to describe the situation we find ourselves in very well. Now, post general election, the result of which I would venture to say is a triumph of headlines, soundbites and emotion over level headed, logical and rational thinking, is that ‘we’ (leave me out of that group!) have truly cut off our noses to spite our faces. Frankly, those of us who can still think rationally are filled with pessimism fro the future that has been carved out for us by the ERG and their billionaire backers, but hey-ho and on we go.

Leave a Reply