By Linda S. Heard*
Strange how Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May voted for Britain to remain in the EU yet has morphed into one of Brexit’s most determined advocates refusing to contemplate a second referendum because the people have spoken, she says.
Even stranger is the revelation that the UK’s eccentric Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote a column in support of staying-in just days before he joined the Leavers, which was never published. He no doubt flip-flopped with an eye on Number Ten; she may have been a closet Brexiteer all along.
Whatever their motivations, together with former Prime Minister David Cameron — who only called a referendum to garner support within his party for his reelection never imagining Britons would vote out — they have damaged their country’s economic health in the short term and perhaps for the foreseeable future.
I have quite a few British friends who aren’t as gung-ho about bidding the European Union (EU) adieu as they once were, primarily because they are feeling the pinch where it hurts — in their pockets. I know many more who voted against and they are hopping mad.
Sterling has lost 18 percent against the dollar and is close to par with the euro even before Article 50 has been triggered, which May says will occur before the end of March. Supermarket prices are rising with shoppers expected to pay 10 percent more for food items. The price of cars is being hiked and petrol is set to rise as much as 5p a liter.
“They never explained the consequences” is the usual bleat of the regretful crowd. Well, actually “they” — the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, economists, the CEOs of international corporations — certainly did, but were accused of being deceitful, establishment scaremongers.
Others, who naively thought EU member states would be accommodating, are also having second thoughts. They are not about to make life easy for Britain so as to deter other countries from holding referenda of their own.
From their perspective London can’t have the cake and eat it too; in other words if the government wants preferential terms for access to the single market it will have to accept the free movement of people. But it can’t without enraging the xenophobes within the pro-Brexit camp.
What’s happening now is just the tip of the iceberg. What depths the pound will plunge once Article 50 is invoked cannot be known. There will be major job losses; some experts estimate as many as 75,000 in London alone if a favorable trade deal cannot be secured. The capital’s status as Europe’s financial center is at stake. International banks, major corporations and some airlines are planning to move operations to European capitals.
The other day, I spoke to a British friend, a civil engineer who was a very enthusiastic outer because he was sick of hearing supermarket staff speaking Polish. I asked him whether he would vote the same way if another referendum were held. “That’s hypothetical. I can’t answer that,” was his answer. “In any case, we will survive. We always have. I believe in Great Britain. We got through two wars. We may be poorer but we will be fine.”
His optimism is commendable but with the Scottish government readying another independence referendum following “a three-month listening period” to gauge the temperature of voters, Great Britain will probably be downsized physically as well as economically.
According to the Financial Times, the UK will be liable to pay 20 billion euros just to divorce in terms of “unpaid bills and liabilities” including its share of pensions. Moreover, adviser to the British government Raoul Ruparel estimates that a withdrawal from the customs union would see Britain worse off by 25 billion pounds annually. There’s the argument that the UK would be free to sign trade agreements with the rest of the world; maybe so, but they don’t happen in five minutes. They usually take several years to fine tune.
From my perspective, this entire exercise is madness. If there are advantages I don’t see them. But there is a slight glimmer of hope. The Prime Minister’s authority to proceed with Brexit without an act of Parliament is being challenged in the High Court on the basis that the referendum was just an advisory that is not legally binding. Judges have a heavy weight on their shoulders. Unlike the self-serving politicians, may they bear it with the seriousness it deserves.
*Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist.