It’s almost painful (at least if you’re British) to watch the United Kingdom’s governing establishment getting ever more stressed and agonised over Brexit. It lurches from one crisis to another. No-one seems to know if there is now a majority in Parliament for anything. And, if there isn’t, then what?
Why are we in this mess? And is there any hope of emerging from it?
There’s a lot to be said for the claim that the United Kingdom has never been a happy ‘fit’ within the European Union. Our foggy island with its own centuries-old traditions and ‘pragmatic’ common law democratic philosophy is bound to sit uneasily in a complex bloc of treaties with a great clump of continental states that start with quite different historical experiences, above all codified Napoleonic law instincts.
Indeed, many EU member states’ diplomats see the UK as a good and powerful force within the European Union precisely for that reason. We focus hard – maybe well beyond the point of utter cynicism ¬– on what happens next and who pays for it, rather than on lofty ideals. We keep a beady expert eye on what EU rules mean for national sovereignty, and are happy to share our opinions.
Above all, we like to mind our own business. For us the very act of joining the European Union means compromising our sovereignty; surrendering something important. It’s value-subtracting.
By stark contrast, for many of our EU partners whose domestic political experience is pretty light on stability and democracy, pooling sovereignty at the EU level is a huge relief. The EU sets a framework for ‘stability’ that helps keep domestic political turmoil under control. It’s value-adding.
Down the decades, both main British political parties have found it hard to explain to voters the rationale for the UK’s EU membership other than in the blandest terms. Indeed, they have preferred to avoid the issue. That’s why a British child can go through the full UK education system and have scarcely a single hour learning about how the EU works and what it means for the UK’s role and status in the world.
Sooner or later, the contradictions here between British insouciance and the EU stated goal of ‘ever closer union’ (ie more and more and then more decisions taken at the EU level, as if the EU were in fact one super-state) were bound to lead to trouble.
Successive Labour leaders duly waffled on about the UK ‘being right at the heart of Europe’ without honestly committing to it. Successive Conservative leaders found favour with voters by making ‘Eurosceptic’ noises about ‘standing up to Brussels’.
Along came the UK Independence Party (UKIP) calling for the UK to leave the European Union completely. It started to gain serious numbers of votes from both Labour and Conservative areas. The then Prime Minister David Cameron promised voters a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, basically to buy political time.
Time ran out. The referendum took place. The British public voted to Leave. Brexit!
Then we had a second referendum, namely the 2015 general elections when both Labour and Conservatives as the two largest winning parties campaigned on a platform of delivering Brexit.
And lo, here we are. Deep in a quagmire of impenetrable process and useless opportunism.
Prime Minister May has negotiated a deal with Brussels that fails to convince many within her own party that the UK is in fact leaving EU jurisdiction once and for all. The Labour Party smirkily object to anything the Conservatives propose, while refusing to accept any responsibility for delivering a Brexit package.
Meanwhile the pro-EU tendency smugly call for yet another referendum, hoping that this time voters will deliver the ‘right’ answer and opt for a quiet life within the EU’s clammy bosom. And the argument is made in Brussels that the UK can easily end its agony and just withdraw its notification to leave the EU. Submit! It’s so much easier.
Every other country on Earth observes this unhappiness and draws the correct conclusion. Never ever surrender great slabs of national sovereignty to an EU-like regional club. Once it’s gone, you suffer mightily to get it back.
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