Whether the UK leaves the EU by Boris Johnson’s artificial deadline of 31 October only matters only if you are interested in the terrifying egos of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.
But the clearest sign that the exit is nearing, be it on that day or by way of some kind of technical extension, came from Angela Merkel on Sunday. “With the departure of Great Britain, a potential competitor will of course emerge for us,” she said. “That is to say, in addition to China and the United States of America, there will be Great Britain as well.”
It is a reminder that, once Brexit happens (if Brexit happens), it will return again to the beginning.
When a referendum on EU membership began to feel imminent, in the autumn of 2015, around pub tables and lunch tables and in the corridors and ante rooms of Westminster, MPs, analysts, civil servants, think tankers, journalists and indeed everyone all made, almost in unsion, the single most important argument in favour of remaining.
They will punish us. They will make an example of us. They will not allow a British exit to incentivise others to do the same.
The following spring and summer it was, perhaps, unfortunate, that this argument was not made by the Remain campaign with the force that it should have been. You can understand why. “They will screw us if we leave,” is a difficult way to make the case for remaining in a union with, well, the would-be screwers. If the UK does indeed leave in the next few weeks or months, what is not clear is whether the public conversation will move on. The trade talks will be brutal, and of crucial importance for national prosperity, but they are also knotty, dull and whole orders of magnitude more complex than anything like the Irish backstop.
There are many Westminster watchers who think the subject will, comparatively speaking, go away.
But the truth of the matter will remain. The EU will indeed have a competitor, right on its doorstep. The EU is ruthless at protecting its interests. It is a powerful union. It is through the power of the EU that little old Ireland now gets to tell the UK what to do. A novel experience.
Merkel’s comments have been received, in the usual quarters, as an affront to Britain. Never mind that the EU, and Merkel in particular, have been paragons of diplomacy and restraint as the UK has had a very public nervous breakdown over the last three years, the House of Commons arithmetic making it impossible for the country to reach an agreed position on a question that has hopelessly divided it, and is likely to do so for decades to come.
The now prime minister, Boris Johnson, has on several occasions likened the European Union to Nazis, a staggeringly crass and unforgivably offensive thing for an aspiring statesman to say. Such remarks have been met, in the most part, with bitten lip.
But she is right. As the UK toys with threats about becoming “the Singapore of Europe,” deregulating and cutting taxes to lure business away from Europe, the EU would be mad not to consider the reality of a competitor on its doorstep.
She is also right to compare the UK with the US and China. The UK is dysfunctional, unreliable, unstable and untrustworthy. For months now, it has threatened the EU with no-deal Brexit. No deal threatens thousands of jobs, in France, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. It is not the EU’s decision.
In a few weeks time, the UK may elect a prime minister who, as recently as 2012, at the tender age of 63, wrote newspaper columns arguing for the UK to pull out of Nato, and has suggested Britain’s armed forces should be disbanded.
Just as Trump has abandoned Nato’s Kurdish allies to attack from Turkey, in a move in which Vladimir Putin is the only beneficiary, so too the UK has become a partner on whom the EU, and the world, cannot rely. It would be irresponsible of Angela Merkel, and others, to not consider how it should respond to such a reality.
Brexit is regularly sold by Brexiteers as the opportunity to “rekindle old friendships”, to return to the Commonwealth and, that imagined thing, the “anglosphere.” It is all unhinged, but even on the most generous reading, the facts of the matter are that, in the last 40 years, the world has moved on. Old friends, like New Zealand and Australia are far, far more interested in opening trading relationships with the EU’s colossal single market, than they are with the UK’s comparatively small one.
In my very humble opinion, the most fair minded, least contentious summary of the decision to leave the European Union is that the UK joined a trading trading bloc in the 1970s, and since then has watched it turn into an overtly political organisation, with a parliament, a president, a court and a mission statement for further integration. In June 2016, it chose a different path.
But it did so for political reasons. All of the pro-Brexit trade arguments are a red herring, dreamt up by longstanding Eurosceptics as a way to win a political argument. The idea the UK economy was somehow trapped or constrained by EU membership is daft.
Fair-minded Brexiteers should acknowledge there is no credible economic case for Brexit, certainly not in the short to medium term.
The problem, in the years ahead, is that the political case, as outlined above, was most keenly felt by a generation who watched that change happen. The younger generation, who will suffer most, in the short to medium term, from the inevitable economic consequences of Brexit, were also the least persuaded by the political gains.
This is a vicious problem the country will have to try and manage in the years ahead.
The EU has a new competitor. And it is not quite like the US or China. It is substantially smaller. It will be fighting a losing game, not least as it is a fight that at least 48 per cent of the country (drastically higher if you include the EU nationals that live in it, who did not vote), wants no part of.
The cards are stacked heavily in the EU’s favour. Life as the EU’s newest competitor, rather than its economic partner will be a far tougher fight than anything that has come to pass in the last three torturous years.
Brexit became official Friday at 11 p.m. in London and midnight in Brussels, where the EU is headquartered.
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