Painful moves and painful movements have been underway in Brexiting Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May of the UK initiated the Brexit bluster via letter, and March 29, 2017 may well go down in the annals of the European project as more than a mere bruising farewell.
The letter has the sense of having cake and munching on it too. There is little in the way of a tea and sympathy tone. “We want to make sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and is capable of projecting its values, leading in the world, and defending itself from security threats… We therefore believe it is necessary to agree to the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union.”
The language is crudely suggestive of Britain as indispensable (you need us more than we need you), and Europe as vulnerable to security breaches that Britain might well assist in repelling. Britain may well be leaving the arrangement, but it still wants access to Europe’s markets and consequent privileges.
Nor can May ever quite shake off her pedigree as former home secretary, a true security obsessive that laces the language of departure with boring repetitiveness. “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.” As The Guardian surmised on this point, “May rams home the point that Europe needs Britain’s spooks and soldiers.”
Donald Tusk of the EU Council was sombre, regretful and even funereal in bidding farewell to the United Kingdom at a press conference. “We already miss you.” A member of the family, an often cantankerous one, was taking flight from a dysfunctional collective.
Social media followers of various shades welcomed “Brexit Day” as a sign writ in the sky, though much of this was more tired than revelatory. Finally, the theme went, the divorce papers had been filed. Britain was leaving a marriage regarded by the Leavers as problematic from the start.
As with such decisions, many who support it are those who will suffer least, having not been direct beneficiaries to begin with. At most, they do not see the vast subsidies and grants provided by the EU as having had a visible impact, despite such provision going straight into public services. The failure to articulate that point by the Remain campaign was acute as it was disastrous.
Critics of EU integration, of having Britain within the European project, through the rights system, through accountability, is rubbished as dreary continentalism fuelled by colourless bureaucrats. The Brits, goes this line, were only ever doing it without much sense of wanting to be there.
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What continues to linger is the conspicuous lack of certainty on what a divorced relationship entails when it comes to leaving the EU. For one thing, it will test the limits and uses of Article 50, a clause that has remained essentially virginal till now.
For such figures as historian Timothy Garton Ash, resistance continues. “The many millions of us in Britain who identify ourselves as Europeans must not give up now, as if the show were over. It’s not, and we’re not just the audience. We are actors in this play and our main task is to persuade our fellow actors.”
While the background guerrilla skirmishes between Remoaners and Brexiteers continue, dealing with a bloc of 27 countries is not going to be a whimsical affair. “If Britain isn’t punished to some degree,” suggests economist Richard Holden, “then it is a green light to other countries that they can leave the EU and still be treated reasonably well.”
The stirrings of the authoritarian will are also there. May exudes an absolutist air about how she will manage, or perhaps mismanage, the navigation of Britain in troubled and highly contentious waters.
As noted by The Economist, her Great Repeal Bill, with its “Henry VIII” clauses “would enable the prime minister to fiddle unilaterally with the tide of rules as it washes into Britain’s environmental, employment, legal and tax regimes.”
Exiting such agreements or covenants tends to only take place in times of crisis – think the League of Nations and the exit of the Axis Powers in the 1930s. But this is chaos in peacetime, the charge of a critique of European institutions that risks fracturing, if not dissolving, the edifice.
Britain’s plodding over the next two years will be watched by resurgent nationalists and populists of Europe with beadily curious eyes. France’s Marine le Pen, in particular, is most interested. Will the structure be torn down and resurrected, polished and new with more reformed and more transparent institutions? Or will Europe return to its pre-EU form, unstable and prone to even more strife? No one knows for now, and any soothsaying deserves strict penalisation.