BRITAIN LOSES ITS MIND.
A BRITISH VIEW FROM A POST-BREXIT EUROPE
No less an Anglophobe-Britophobe than French General and President Charles de Gaulle once said “La Manche ne nous sépare pas, elle nous joint” (The (English) Channel does not separate us, it joins us). Ever-ungrateful for, and embarrassed by, the part Britain played in liberating his country from German aggression in two World Wars, he nevertheless had to recognise reality when it was staring him in the face.
So, although Britain left the European Union on 31st January, it will, at minimum, remain tethered to the rest of this continent by the 22 miles of water that still joins them.
Despite that, the British Prime Minister had his way with Brexit. However, the British Isles will stubbornly refuse to up-anchor and somehow float off into the Atlantic Ocean, to become America’s 51st State as we are all suspecting our Prime Minister wants it to become. He is, after all, New York City-born. Did I say Prime Minister? I think of him as a Sub-Prime Minister. As a full-time supporter of retaining British membership of the European Union, to fight for improvements in that body, I am aghast at his foolishness. He is, to many of us, our Trump. While you might lose yours come November this year, or possibly sooner, we will have ours for five years, and possibly ten. Many of us in Britain are deeply depressed by this thought.
Brexit notwithstanding, a British view of Europe will still be a view of Europe. Millions, each year, will book and take holidays in every part of France, Italy, Spain, Croatia and all over everywhere from Norway to Cyprus and will neither feel nor expect anything different from last year’s experience. About a million Brits live full time in those countries and elsewhere in Europe, and equal numbers of people from there, are now living and working here.
When we go to France, as an example, Brits will still have to struggle with converting British Pounds to Euros and back again, because we never joined the Euro-Zone in the first place. But it does not stop there. Unlike the sensible and practical Americans, where the US dollar is good for use from Washington to Washington DC, from Syracuse to Sarasota, not to mention distant Alaska and Hawaii, we Europeans on our vast continent have Pounds, Euros, Krona (and Krone) Francs, Marks, Forints, and Zloty, and that far from names them all. But perhaps that’s part of the charm of staying on our home continent while feeling exotically foreign from time to time. Go anywhere in America and you are still in America.
Brits will soon have to revert to a blue-black British passport instead of the European Union red-brown version. Perhaps that nuisance will be softened by that feeling of exotic otherness as well. But a new passport will cost at least at £85.
The formal departure from the European Union will do no more and no less than start a lengthy process of disentanglement. A highly complex process, too, likely to take years, not months, because almost five decades of incremental togetherness on matters economic and on free movement of people among much else, cannot be undone without a great deal of negotiation, some of it expected to be bitter. Britain is Europe’s biggest trading partner and vice versa, not least because we are on one another’s doorsteps. Simple geography dictates so much of the way nations and their peoples live their lives both internally and internationally. No nation, in 2020, is an island even when it is an island. For Britain to distance itself from Europe, is like imagining California seceding from the USA for no more than spurious “nationalist” or political reasons. In the UK case, it is even worse, because Brexit has turned out to be a handy vehicle on which some appalling and incompetent egos have ridden to political prominence, without having the remotest idea as to the full impact of consequences. Playing to the political gallery can bring thunderous applause, but leave chaos in its wake.
The best predictions indicate that the UK will leave the European Union politically, and that, for the best of practical reasons and a reluctance to commit economic suicide, it will retain all, or almost all, of the European Union regulations on trade. A triumphant march out of the front door, banners waving, followed by a quiet return through the back, heads held low. Aside from trade and free-movement entanglements, the UK has integral Europe-wide relationships in the fields of science, aerospace, criminal investigation, shipping, education, climate change and a lot else. These are not subject to any practical form of Brexit, but Brexit will make meaningful cooperation much more difficult.
There is not much doubt that the European Union project is having trouble with a future it cannot clearly see. But this should not come as any great surprise to those who put ideology aside and look at the realities.
Consider the phenomenon of the disembodied head. This is far from a uniquely European thing, but the European manifestation is unmissable. Most of Western Europe has managed to bring together a mighty bureaucracy in Brussels where the employees and representatives at all levels are committed Europeans and European Unionists. Somewhere below them are the almost endlessly diverse millions, in 28 (soon to be 27) countries, and the disconnected head in Brussels floats above them with no more than a nodding acquaintance with democratic processes. The European Union populaces enjoy the economic benefits of European Union membership, but very little of it feels, to them, anything like an overriding European-ness. Patriotism, however gently applied, calls for a patria, and the European Union as a whole offers nothing like that.
Those who conceived the idea of a European Union missed a trick. While a European Confederation might have been a workable arrangement with longevity built into it, the concept of a European Union type of Union carries with it the unavoidable strains of centrism and the seeds of its own disunity. A permanent European Confederation, maybe. A permanent European Union, probably not.
The problem in Europe is that the depth and breadth of centuries of diversity and serious difference is such that as a theoretical unit, it could never be united in any way that would not be superficial. For example, and only looking at the European Union members:
· A range of startingly different histories
· Only 19 of the 27 members of the European Union have a common currency, the Euro. A union where almost 30% of the members do not share a common currency? Some union, that
· A Union, which, if it is to function as a union, needs overwhelming central control. The European Union is unmistakably subservient, in so much, to national governments and/or parliaments. Like the de facto federal US States, but unlike, say, the Russian or Chinese unions
· 24 languages designated as “official and working” in the European Union and there is no common language other than English, which is frequently used in formal settings and negotiations, for reasons of clear communication, practicality and the preservation of sanity. It is certainly not in general use by the populations of the countries in question, other than Britain. In a rich irony, Britain will leave the European Union but leave the de facto English lingua franca behind
· No common postal system beyond the usual international arrangements, with postal charges, stamps and everything else differing widely
· No common system of taxation
· No common constitution beyond a series of treaties
· No common legal system — the European Court of Justice is a court of last resort, with a narrow remit, and not a “supreme court” as it would be understood in, say, the USA or Britain. What’s more, some member countries have legal systems based on Roman Law and the Code Napoleon, while others have Roman-Dutch systems, and some, such as the UK, have neither
· Political systems which vary from representative democracies to what can only be described as quasi-democratic near-autarchies
· No common defence strategy (NATO is a different matter, as without the involvement of the USA, there would be no such organisation and nothing resembling a European defence strategy). There is no army which could remotely be called “Euro-national” as, for example, the armies of the USA, Russia or China are national. There is a bewildering range of incompatible weaponry
· National cultures differ widely in terms of food, music, dress, customs, medicine, and much else, including flags and anthems. There is a European Union flag, and an anthem, but their use is more in the breach than in the observance
· The British still hold to driving on the right, while the rest of Europe drives on the left
On top of this, the British, Polish and Czechs still distrust the Germans, who are still feared by the French, who despise the Italians, who can’t eat Dutch food, while the Spanish are suspicious of the Portuguese, the Hungarians don’t much like the Austrians, no-one understands the Bulgarians or Romanians, and everyone dislikes the Belgians. And the French. Putting together a political Union in the face of such mutual, barely disguised hostility and suspicion, was never going to be a formality.
There is much talk (mostly from the disembodied heads) of “unity in diversity”. That is an almost perfect example of a contradiction in terms.