Friday 2 June 2017

Brexit's historical amnesia and bogus patriotism

Brexiters are often accused of living in the past. That is manifest in the now recurring Brexiter response to concerns about Brexit: ‘but we did perfectly well before’.

It is made to farmers worrying about who will pick their crops and the NHS worrying about who will staff the wards, if not EU workers. To which there is an obvious answer: before Britain joined the EU forty years ago, the age demographic of Britain was completely different.

It is made to those querying how Britain will make trade deals. To which there is an obvious answer; before Britain joined the EU forty years ago the world was not divided into regional trade blocs, membership of one of which is now vital and of which only the EU is available to Britain.

It is made to those pointing out that leaving the customs union will wreak havoc on international supply chains. To which there is an obvious answer; before Britain joined the EU forty years ago such international supply chains scarcely existed.

It is made to those warning of the dangers of a Northern Ireland hard border (when Brexiters retort that the Common Travel Area (CTA) long precedes the EU). To which there is an obvious answer; the Republic of Ireland is in the single market with freedom of movement, so the CTA cannot exist without freedom of movement into the UK.

In all these, and other, ways Brexiters are indeed living in the past. But the more salient criticism is that they have forgotten the past, and exhibit a curious – and now dangerous – historical amnesia. The first aspect of this is that they have forgotten that far from being forced to join the EU Britain had to virtually beg to do so, having tried to do so since the late 1950s and having been rebuffed – primarily by France – in 1963. If we must go back in time to the early 1970s then we should remember that we were the supplicants. Brexiters have also forgotten that when membership was confirmed in the 1975 Referendum it was explicitly framed as both a political and economic union; it has been a pervasive Brexiter myth that no political union was envisaged.

In the forty years since then, the EU has changed significantly, but in ways which have been shaped overwhelmingly by Britain. The development of a wider and deeper single market, increasingly taking in services, did not just enhance European integration but did so in a particular, market-focussed, way in line with Thatcherism – Thatcher being a prime architect of the single market – and later Blairism. That deepening single market always implied a deepening of political integration, so it is nonsense to suggest that this happened against British wishes, because a transnational single market entails transnational regulation and law. It’s no coincidence that in 1995 the French rejected the European constitution in a Referendum: it reflected hostility to the British model of a European market. Still, single market deepening went ahead and that was indicative of British influence over what the EU has become.

British influence over the EU was not just economic. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe presented the strategic possibility of integrating them into the west and the strategic danger that if that did not happen they would become unstable or even hostile. One of the great achievements of the EU has been to integrate them, and to avoid those dangers, and Britain more than any other EU member state was the prime mover of this. Entailed within that integration was the accession states joining the single market and their citizens enjoying free movement rights, as duly happened. But it was the choice of the British government to allow those free movement rights to apply immediately to Britain (unlike most EU states) just as it was the choice of the British government never to utilise the various restrictions on free movement of people within the EU that EU law has always allowed.

Thus by the time that EU membership became a defining issue in British politics in 2015-2016 the situation was that Britain, having had to beg to join in the early 1970s, had, rather remarkably, managed to shape the EU in accordance with its economic and political priorities. Moreover, Britain had managed to gain exemption from a host of EU developments – most obviously the single currency and the Schengen area, but also things like refugee sharing – that either did not suit its strategic interests or which would be unpopular with the British electorate. In addition, the budget rebate deal meant that Britain’s contribution was each and every year the lowest as a percentage of GDP of any member state.

By these means Britain had managed to shape for itself a global role by virtue of its unique, interlocking combination of membership of the EU, UN Permanent Security Council, NATO, Commonwealth, Five Eyes intelligence sharing and the nuclear club, not inconsiderably underpinned by the City of London’s place as one of the top two centres of international finance. In every discussion – from climate change to human rights – Britain’s voice mattered. It would be quite wrong to say that we had no problems but, still, Britain had substantially re-invented itself compared with its early 1970s malaise.

Now, all that has been squandered by the Brexiters who have forgotten all that has been achieved by EU membership and are replacing it with fantasies. No longer will Britain shape the continent it is part of. No longer will Britain be the pivot between every international body. No longer will it be the centre of global science and innovation that it has been. Many disagree with our nuclear weapons policy, but it will most likely be ended for reasons of cost, not principle, and with it is likely to go our place on the UN Permanent Security Council. And as we hawk ourselves around for trade deals, there will be no question of human rights or environmental standards: any deal will do. The City of London will decline – and if you don’t care about bankers, you’ll miss their taxes – and is already doing so.

Maybe the key point to make in the present situation is that there is literally no deal with the EU that will be a good deal compared with what we had before. The options now range from ‘not too bad’ (meaning, let’s be clear, an economic recession) to ‘catastrophic’ (meaning an economic depression). That’s the range of possible economic outcomes, and just how bad they are will be determined by negotiation. The geo-political outcome is much easier to predict because it doesn’t depend upon the negotiations with the EU, it will occur and already is occurring simply by virtue of leaving. There are no conceivable circumstances whatsoever in which Brexit can mean anything other than a diminution of Britain’s geo-political standing.

It is extraordinary, therefore, that so many Brexiters consider themselves to be patriots. Were they, indeed, patriots they would not be so recklessly squandering what has been achieved in the last four decades, having apparently forgotten it just as they have forgotten all that has changed. Which is why Theresa May's bogus assertions that those who are not behind Brexit are in some way betraying Britain. On the contrary, the betrayal is pursuing a course of action which will inevitably diminish us.

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