It’s happened. It’s being tweeted, shared and ranted all over. Prime Minister Theresa May has trigged Article 50, forcing a new chapter in the long drawn out process of severing Britain from the European Union.
Much of the coverage thus far is predictably convoluted. Where political commentary is often marked by partisanship and self-serving narcissism, the issue of Brexit seems harder than most to decipher. What the heck is going to happen now, and how did we even reach this point to begin with?
It cannot be denied that Brexit has a significantly dark aspect. Outside of bombastic declarations as to sovereignty and “taking back control”, much of the still endemic Euro-scepticism came from the right wing of the political spectrum, with many pro-Brexit supporters expressing markedly xenophobic sentiments. Certain elements have capitalised on this, attempting to pose as the authentic defenders of a unique ‘Britishness’ against foreign encroachment. The narrative would be boring if it were not so dangerous.
Indeed, some under the influence of such rhetoric have decided to take things further. Racist hate crimes proliferated across the country in the wake of the initial referendum in 2016. People have been attacked, even killed. In my own experience, I voted to remain in the EU precisely because I didn’t want to hand a victory to a virulent British nationalism I believe the left is currently ill-equipped to combat. Economic uncertainty coupled with politicised xenophobia is, after all, a very toxic mix.
This needs to be kept foremost in mind for the immediate future. Whilst UKIP’s Nigel Farage seems to be undecided as to his future career (initially seemingly content to just resign after the 2016 referendum and enjoy apparent fame as the man who “saved” us from Europe) Brexit is still being regarded in some quarters as a “war” that has already been won. With that kind of triumphalism coming from the right, it seems logical to expect a continuing renewal of confidence by factions marked by both xenophobia and economic conservatism. Nothing good, in other words.
Couple this with blanket media hostility to the Labour Party opposition (and incessant betrayal within the higher echelons of the LP’s own ranks) and it seems the situation is looking increasingly grim. Outside of the domestic sphere, however we are left with the question as to how the UK may navigate around any hurdles placed in her path by the heavy hitters in the form of France and Germany. If such a dynamic duo wish to punish the UK for wanting out, there’s no indication that they won’t be able to do so, despite repeat assurances that nothing of the sort is yet on the cards.
What may be of interest is how these states pursue their own interests within what’s left of the EU. The absence of an often uncooperative UK may present certain opportunities, something that may become more evident over the course of negotiations.
Negotiations, it must be stressed, where Britain will be on the back foot. To presume that the UK can simply fall back on the Commonwealth for ‘trade’ (as many pro-Brexit advocates are doing) is a non-starter. Britain evidently already ‘trades’ with the Commonwealth. That was never a point of ambiguity, or at least shouldn’t be. What is of concern is what kind of deal the UK can hope to achieve when confronted with the evident pessimism already being displayed by other European powers.
The British government is thus caught between the rock of a Euro-sceptic public and the hard place of European states likely looking to turn the situation to their own advantage. This is not going to be without consequence and a stiff upper lip is not going to see us through unscathed. There is no magical fall back position for the UK to find safe harbour in.
Indeed, being a part of a vast economic bloc came with some pretty serious benefits. Despite ongoing protestations, the integration of EU law into the British judicial landscape involved a further enshrinement of universal human rights within the political life of a major European power. Where as Britain’s Human Rights Act (HRA) has certain flaws (as indeed does the European Convention) the fact that such items of legislation have come under increasing attack by the Euro-sceptic right should be cause for concern.
Given that the current government has already been accused of “leading the charge” against human rights across the globe I think such concern is more than justified. Human rights have been an ongoing target for some time now. I can’t see such a situation improving now that Article 50 is on the agenda; if anything the situation may instil renewed confidence in ultimately dispensing with the positive aspects of the HRA and replacing them with a resoundingly hollow “British” imitation.
Long Term Differences
There are historical issues to consider, also. Not all parties have had the same attitude to a united Europe, whether we are dealing with the fledging European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of the 1950s or the emergence of the EU in ’93. Following WWII, Britain adopted an at times indecisive attitude towards the continent, at times hoping to capitalise on its still substantial global influence to weave an independent course between subservience to the United States and a presumed (and largely fictional) assimilation into a European ‘super state’. This has, arguably, been a constant factor not only in the mindset of British politicians but the general public, also.
Things were certainly different elsewhere. Federal Germany, still aching over the loss of territory to the freshly inaugurated German Democratic Republic, naturally took a different position, viewing a semblance of formal economic integration as a stepping stone towards reconstruction and ‘collective security’. Economic ties were conducive to military ties.
The Americans initially welcomed such developments. After all, an economically viable western Europe proved conducive to both the strengthening of NATO and the containment of the USSR. Yet this attitude would only last so long as Europe proved itself to be suitably pliable to US interests.
This would change with not only the disappearance of the Eastern Bloc but the transformation of Europe from a shattered and war-weary collection of nations into an economic powerhouse comprising the largest free trade zone on the planet. This is amply demonstrated by the periodically hostile attitude now displayed by US politicians anxious to undermine European cohesion. Trump’s typically bizarre comments on Brexit are a case in point.
Times have certainly changed, however. Germany is no longer a tenuous blip on a political landscape divided between super powers, nor is Britain, no matter how some might object, a dominant force in global politics. As far as Berlin may see it, Germany has much to gain from not only a continuation of the EU, but a reassertion of its remarkable economic strength across much of the continent. The same could have been said of the UK, were it not for the presence of a historically evident Euro-sceptic tradition, one necessarily emboldened by the simmering resentment of economic crisis.
It’s partly the government’s failure to address said crisis that is behind the apparent popularity of “UK independence”. Again, much of the Brexit narrative revolves around resentment towards migrants, regardless of the already well established fact that European migrants, specifically, contribute a sizeable amount to the UK economy.
What in some instances lies behind such rhetoric is a growing sense of powerlessness in a society that has been unable to still fully extricate itself from the crisis of 2008, something that’s been further compounded by years of Conservative party rule and reforms to Britain’s welfare net that have, with considerable justification, been described as “calculated cruelty” by detractors. It’s easy to see how certain unscrupulous political forces have been able to take advantage of such a situation for their own benefit. The resulting economic and social confusion is seen as a necessary price to pay.
This hasn’t inspired much gusto in an international business community that values security, consistency and predictability in its myriad dealings. Now that Article 50 is actually happening, Britain’s rocky economic situation seems hardly likely to improve in the short term. The rest of Europe will be well aware of this. This will be a factor that comes into play in negotiations.
Brexit may thus constitute an opportunity for Berlin (and perhaps Paris) to shape a European future on its own terms. How Britain fares in such a future is not certain. To thus lose ourselves in patriotic fervour and an idealised past of Empire and prestige is just embarrassing. A loss of confidence in British economic strength is already more than evident. Article 50 will not restore that confidence. Nor will nationalistic fervour and xenophobia. The latter, however, may yet cause additional damage to the British social and political landscape. We had best be on guard.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.