RICHARD BUTLER. Brexit: Wilful Blindness

Apr 11, 2019

The manic pursuit of Brexit by PM May, against all the facts and reason, dismisses any clear sight or recollection of the relevant history of Europe. Her actions will determine the future of the UK as presently constituted and, have a profound impact upon global stability. She is putting these things at risk to keep the Conservative party alive. That party is not identical with the UK. It is an English party and is apparently determined to preserve its notion of England, at all costs.  

The sight of the UK Prime Minister making an urgent visit to Berlin and Paris, today, to plead for German and French agreement to what she thinks she needs to do to fix a crisis within the UK polity, a home made one, begs for some historical reflection.

The Germans have been the endlessly vilified enemy for at least the past century and a quarter. The French have been competitors/enemies for the past five centuries but, in contrast to the sinister characterisation of the Germans that are routine in popular english discourse; the French are seen to be simply ; unreliable, sloppy, winos, with loose morals; not so sinister.

Putting such caricatures aside, the more pertinent contemporary European history is the forging of of what has become the EU.

It began in 1951 on the basis of a plan advanced by French Foreign Minister, Robert Schumann. German government’s supported it from the beginning and have never wavered in this. Through continual development and enlargement it has become today’s EU; made up of 28 member states, representing some 500 million people.

The UK joined in 1973, having first faced a couple of vetos by General DeGaulle. But, its participation has always involved self imposed limits. For example, it never joined the common currency; the Euro.

In 2012, the EU and its member states were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having ensured peace and the promotion of human rights in Europe, for six decades. There seemed to be merit in the Nobel Committee’s judgement. During the 20th Century, the two major wars originating in Europe had killed almost 100 million people; military personnel and civilians.

A fundamental, expressed motivation for the Schumann Plan and, then the first EU Treaty, the Treaty of Rome, was to ensure that such intra-European war never occurred again. This remains the core purpose of the set of cooperative relationships that the UK wants to exit.

The reasons for leaving the EU given  by key Brexiters: Boris Johnson, Nigel Farange, for example, are notable not simply for the lies that have been put to the British public, but for the major focus which has been put on the money, the costs of membership of the EU, which were flagrantly misrepresented. When they have ventured into the international relations aspects of of UK membership, they have claimed that it restricts the UK’s freedom of action, as one of the “great powers”, and in the case of Johnson, have painted a picture of Britain returning to global grandeur, when it is liberated from Europe.

At the referendum in 2016, 52% voted to leave and 48% to stay. The former were concentrated in England and in some measure in Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. Polls today show that a majority of people would like to see a second referendum and this carries the implication that, if this were to occur, it is likely that the result would be in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.

If May eventually achieves a “deal” on the basis of which the UK does exit the EU, it now seems that it would be based on a domestic political agreement with the opposition Labour Party. She has failed to get agreement from her own party and the Ulster Unionists, on which her minority government depends to stay in office. If the Parliament and then the EU Council accepts her deal, she will appear to have kept her promise to to implement the outcome of the 2016 referendum but, she will have paid a high price, including: the loss of her own job; almost certainly the collapse of the Conservative Party, as presently constituted; and, the break-up of the Union, with Scotland voting in a second referendum to become independent and remain in the EU.

This analysis could well need revision, if May agrees to Labour’s condition that whatever is agreed between the two major parties on the Brexit deal be put to a people’s vote; a second Brexit referendum.  The outcome of that vote could be to reject the deal and scuttle Brexit.  Polls suggest that the vote in such a referendum would be to remain in the E.U.  That people were misled during the first referendum is now widely appreciated and many more younger people, who did not vote in 2016, and who favour remaining in Europe, would vote if given a second chance.  It is why the extremists within the Conservative Party are so hostile to a second check with the people.  This is not simply because of their anger with May for negotiating with what they call the “Marxists”, that is, the British Labour Party, the loyal opposition. Far more important is their concern that they would lose a second referendum.

There is a rich historical irony that May’s project to rescue the Conservative Party from itself is now squarely within the gift of the Germans and the French. What is at risk, in substance, is Britain’s continuing participation in the affairs of Europe, both political and economic; possibly the most successful project for the maintenance of international cooperation, peace and stability the world has seen since the end of the Second World War. Although dealing with the UK’s turmoil has been very difficult, it seems that the German’s and the French would prefer the UK to think again and remain in the EU.

The debate within the UK and May’s shaping of it, has been wilfully blind to these immensely important realities.  It has been so revealing that the debates in the Commons have focused almost exclusively on the economic basis of Brexit.  There was no serious attention given to the consequences for the UK of its exclusion from European political affairs.

A reduced United Kingdom, a little England: with its ludicrously expensive and plainly useless nuclear weapons; its anachronistic permanent seat on the UN Security Council (which will almost certainly be challenged after Brexit); and its increasingly xenophobic outlook is unlikely to do as well outside the EU as the Brexiters claim.

Boris Johnson’s notion of the re-aggrandisement of Great Britain is fantasy.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations. 

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