Second thoughts about Brexit - Philipp Bekaert
Many of us probably have good reasons to be against Brexit. So do I. The first is not very convincing: I don’t like the idea. Deep inside as a European I feel that the EU, however imperfect, is a wonderful tool of concertation on a continent that’s been torn by war for centuries and millennia. And besides, I’ve often noticed that many people who criticise the very existence of the European Union really don’t know what they’re talking about, so they never convinced me.
Another argument for opposing Brexit is that the reason why the UK joined the European Communities in 1973 still stands. Look at a map: access to the European markets was essential the UK’s economic survival – and still is. After Brexit, British goods and products will most probably still have to fit European rules, the only difference being that in future the British will have no say in the elaboration of these rules. Basically this is what happens in Switzerland and Norway: the people of those countries prefer to remain outside of the EU, so they stay out for political reasons, but out of economic necessity, and as discretely as possible, their parliaments systematically incorporate (a lot of) EU law into domestic law. There’s nothing against that, but they don’t call it “taking back control” – because it seems more like losing it.
Further, I understand that many Britons think Mr Cameron should be hanged, drawn and quartered for organising a referendum about such a complex question – only to solve party-internal feuds. Probably many English voters didn’t even think about what would happen in Northern Ireland or Scotland in the event of Brexit. Not to mention the countless partial truths, outright lies and fairy tales spread during the Leave campaign: most economists and even some Brexiters agree now that leaving the EU will actually cost money, not generate it. Many also feel frustrated that the result of the referendum was 52% in favour of leaving the EU. It’s not like a vast majority supported the Leave camp.
These may be good reasons to rejoice at the fact that Mr Johnson might after all not be able to lead his country out of the EU on 31st October of this year. And many do rejoice. But I don’t. And with all due respect: I think rejoicing at this point may be naïve and short-sighted.
First of all, there’s been a vote. It was a bad idea to organise a referendum, the matter in all its consequences was much too complex to be answered by a simple yes or no, people were ill- or misinformed, all that is true – but not uncommon in a democratic election. It was for the British people to decide, and in their majority they have decided. It was a short majority, but that too is not uncommon in a democracy. You inflict long-term damage to your democracy if you ask people to vote over and over again on the same subject until they vote as you’d like them to. Also, as far as I can judge, the result of the vote is probably a correct reflection of the general English psyche. Of course I feel sorry for the English minority and the Scottish majority and all who voted to remain within the EU, but after all they’re not forced to stay married with the others forever if they run out of reasons for doing so. The thought that e.g. Scotland might be part of the EU again soon has been uttered, and really nothing can be excluded at this point.
Second, in terms of politics and even economics (think about firms moving to other countries), much of the Brexit damage is done already, so we might as well carry on with it, even if it’s not going to be easy.
Third, is Brexit really only a bad thing? As I hinted before, Brexit corresponds to a least a widespread sentiment within British culture. Telephone companies advertise “flat rates if you want to call to Europe” – right, not within Europe, but to Europe. Every time I go to the UK, I’m struck by the fact that many people speak about Europe as if they were not part of this continent. There seems to be a British continent out there, distinct from the European one. Probably due to its history and overseas bonds, the UK was never keen to develop close political ties with… Europe. Admittedly, the UK always favoured the (economic) expansion of the European Union – as a way to avoid political integration. The UK, for instance, supported Turkey as a member, knowing perfectly well that this would make any further political integration impossible. For decades this weakened the political weight of the EU on the international scene – giving the US, Russia or China cause for celebration. Not so surprisingly, after the first Brexit shock many EU citizens and politicians realised that Brexit might actually be turned into something positive. A European Union without the UK might be more of a Union – which it needs to be if our countries want to cease to be political dwarfs and start to talk with the US, Russia or China on eye level. Short, Brexit opens new perspectives, not only for the UK.
Fourth: ever since the Brexit chaos has been going on, Eurosceptics outside the UK have gone silent. Of course their parties still exist, but the traditional anti-EU rhetoric has become very quiet. Talk about leaving the EU is heard no more. Outside of the UK, it doesn’t earn you votes any more. Especially if you don’t want to know, it’s quite easy to overlook what the EU does for you in everyday life – until it’s no longer there. This might sound a little bit cynical, but it’s only meant to be pragmatical: this is how I learned to love Brexit. It’s a perfect and constant reminder of what you’re giving up when you decide to leave the European Union. It just might give the EU new strength and confidence – to threaten member states that don’t respect civil liberties, for instance.
And in this context, here comes my fifth point. Theresa May was unsuitable to be prime minister of the UK in charge of Brexit. This is not at all a criticism of her intelligence or personal abilities. The fact is, in 2016 she voted against the Brexit, and politically that made her unsuitable to implement it. Very naturally, she wanted a soft Brexit, which made it easy for the Brexiters to depict her as an EU ally or even collaborator. However untrue that might be, it worked. And that’s the way it’s always going to be. Any Brexit that is not implemented by those who wanted it in the way they wanted it, will end up being a bad Brexit, because it will fuel anti-EU sentiment and rhetoric for years, if not decades. Inside and outside the UK, Eurosceptics will be able to present themselves as victims and to claim that the will of the people is not respected – and the hated EU will, as usual, take the fall.
In a short-term perspective, all who weren’t in favour of Brexit (and I’m one of them) might feel relieved at Mr Johnson’s failure and at the perspective of a “softer” British prime minister entering office. On the long run however, this is likely to cause a political backlash with consequences even more dramatic than Brexit itself. In that sense, we now have the great luck to have one of the fiercest Brexit advocators in a position to implement Brexit. Mr Farage, for instance, has been carefully avoiding to assume any responsibility so far. Mr Johnson, on the contrary, is courageous enough to try and implement his promise to make the UK leave the EU on 31st October of this year. We should welcome that and help him as much as we can. I’m not qualified to decide whether that implies renegotiating the existing agreement, but we should not make things particularly difficult in the hope of accelerating his downfall. In other words, and I write this without the least misplaced irony, we should ensure that UK citizens get exactly what a majority of them, well-informed or ignorant as they were, voted for. Only this, on the long term, will keep British and European institutions out of the line of fire, and in so doing, ensure political and economic stability on both sides of the Channel.
Many of us might wish the 2016 referendum had never happened and everybody could forget about it. It’s just not going to happen. We cannot make the referendum unhappened, not right now. If damage there is, the damage is done. The first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck, once stated: “Politics is the art of what is accessible”. The rest is wishful thinking, and it can be dangerous. With this in mind, Mr Johnson is definitely the lesser evil. Well then, …