The World This Week: Theresa May Pulls Trigger on Brexit
The UK seeks “a new deep and special partnership with a strong EU” that focuses on trade and security even as the future becomes increasingly uncertain.
There are many who believe that Eve came from Adam’s left rib and that climate change is a myth. This week, Cyclone Debbie battered Australia to remind them that they might be wrong. Of late, extreme weather phenomena occur regularly, making a strong case for climate change.
Debbie hit northeastern Australia, causing heavy rain, power cuts and major damage to tens of thousands of homes. It was a category four storm that whipped up gusts of up to 263 kilometers/hour. For many, the ground beneath their feet shook, but Australia mounted an impressive disaster response plan and there were no reports of lives lost.
Yet no cyclone in the United Kingdom’s former convict colony can compare to what hit the mother ship this week. British Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50 “in accordance with the wishes of the British people” to leave the European Union.
Brexit has been a longstanding saga in British politics. The February 21, 2015, edition of The World This Week examined the tortured relationship of this former Roman colony with Europe. Lord Byron might have died fighting for Greek independence and generations of Balliol men might have studied Cicero’s speeches, but the British Empire grew fat on the profits of sugar plantations worked by slaves in Jamaica, Robert Clive’s loot from Bengal and a rather lucrative opium trade with China.
Right from the outset, this nation of shopkeepers had an eye for profit. It was pragmatic, not dogmatic. The British preferred evolution to revolution and their parliament presided over the greatest empire in the history of humanity. As this author pointed out on February 21, 2015, “Queen Elizabeth II’s magnificent realm has a very different memory and narrative to the rest of Europe.” In more ways than one, its recent history is linked more to the English-speaking peoples than to other Europeans.
Furthermore, unlike France, the UK did not experience the horror of the guillotine, the glory of Napoleon or the terror of the Paris Commune. In contrast to Germany, it did not go through heartbreak in 1848, unification in 1871 and crushing defeat in 1945. It has little in common with Spain, which experienced interminable civil war, French invasions and General Francisco Franco’s iron-fisted rule. Other European nations neither have the same continuity of representative democracy, nor a similar tradition of rule of law.
Europeans on the mainland joined the EU to escape the nightmares of the two world wars. A new Europe was supposed to save them from each other. On the other hand, the UK has long seen itself as the savior of Europe itself. In this Harry Potter version of history, this mighty island nation rode in repeatedly like a knight in shining armor to fight against tyranny and villainy for liberty and justice. When the rest of Europe was under the heel of the Nazis, Winston Churchill led the Battle of Britain to save Christian civilization. Generations of schoolchildren have grown up reading how this was the UK’s “finest hour.” Unsurprisingly, while Europeans shudder in horror at the mention of World War II, the British romanticize it nostalgically.
MARGARET THATCHER: BREXIT’S IRON GODMOTHER
British reasons to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 were very different to other Europeans. The French, the Germans and others simply did not want another war. They came together to forge close economic ties that would guarantee peace. The British joined for pure mercenary reasons when their economy was on its back. They saw a fast prospering EEC as a desirable members’ club to improve their incomes.
Such was the political atmosphere then that the unlikeliest of politicians supported joining the EEC. The June 26, 2016, edition of The World This Week chronicled how even Margaret Thatcher campaigned to join the EEC in the 1975 referendum with much élan. Needless to say, the UK’s honeymoon with the EEC did not last long. As the EEC began to morph into a supranational organization under Jacques Delors, Thatcher started to demur.
In an iconic speech on September 20, 1988, at the magnificent College of Europe in Bruges, Thatcher set out her own vision of Europe. She memorably thundered, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
For Thatcher, Europe predated the Treaty of Rome. After all, the UK had been a part of the Roman Empire for 300 years and of Christendom thereafter. It was to the latter’s “recognition of the unique and spiritual nature of the individual” that she attributed British “belief in personal liberty and other human rights.” Speaking in the land of the lovely King Leopold II, Thatcher told her European audience that she cherished “our common experience.” She proudly said, “The story of how Europeans explored and colonized—and yes, without apology—civilized much of the world [was] an extraordinary tale of talent, skill and courage.”
At a time when the strongly socialist and devout Catholic Delors was expanding the powers of the unelected European Commission, the ferociously free market and culturally Roundhead daughter of a grocer put forth five contending guiding principles for Europe.
First, Thatcher argued that “willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states [was] the best way to build a successful European Community (EC).”
Second, she exhorted the EC to “tackle present problems in a practical way” and focus on enforcing budgetary discipline, reforming the common agricultural policy and creating a single market.
Third, Thatcher unsurprisingly asked the EC to create policies that encouraged enterprise. She pointed out that central planning and detailed control had failed Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, the EC ought to free markets, widen choice and reduce government intervention. Instead of a European Central Bank, she asked the EC to ensure among other things free movement of capital and a genuinely free market in financial services in banking, insurance and investment.
Fourth, this devotee of Friedrich von Hayek asked Europe not to be protectionist. Liberalization of world trade was the way to prosperity even for poor nations. Aid alone would not give them economic strength and independence.
Finally, Thatcher argued that the most fundamental issue was the European role in defense. She declared that it was to NATO that Europeans owed the last 40 years of peace. She asked every European nation to “shoulder a fair share of the burden” of defense and maintain the US commitment to European defense. She reminded her audience to “never forget that our way of life, our vision and all we hope to achieve, is secured not by the rightness of our cause but by the strength of our defense.”
Over the next few years, Europe turned away from Thatcher’s vision. As the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Germany reunified in 1990 and the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Europeans got together to sign the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. The European Union emerged in 1993 and Brussels became ever more powerful. In the UK, rumblings against the EU gradually turned into a growl that grew louder over the years. Eventually, it culminated in the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016, and nearly 52% of voters opted to leave the EU, reversing the 1975 referendum to join the EEC.
THERESA MAY, THATCHER’S TRUE DAUGHTER
This week, May dashed off a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, to notify him of the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU. The prime minister reassured Tusk that the UK wants the EU “to succeed and prosper.” She said the British are not rejecting the values they share with their fellow Europeans and that they want to remain committed partners and allies. More importantly, May hoped for “a new deep and special partnership with a strong EU.”
Yet for all the sweet talk, this letter evoked Thatcher’s haloed principles. May wants “both economic and security cooperation” with the EU. She wants to reach a deal within two years and is prepared to rely on the World Trade Organization (WTO) should that not transpire. She wants a comprehensive agreement, minimum disruption and maximum certainty during the negotiation process. She wants to avoid a hard border with Ireland and to safeguard the peace process in Northern Ireland.
More importantly, May proposes “a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement” between the UK and the EU. This agreement would exceed the scope of all others so far. It would cover sectors to what May calls “our linked economies such as financial services and network industries.” Like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, May is proposing a win-win trade deal to the descendants of Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Philipp von Hörnigk. She throws in an appeal to the shared “liberal, democratic values of Europe” to sweeten the deal.
May ends the letter exhorting the EU to stand up for free trade at a time of rising protectionism. She also makes a plea for cooperation at a time when “Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the Cold War.” Finally, she appeals for “deep and special relationship” to ensure “the prosperity, security and global power of our continent.”
It is telling that May’s first question to Tony Blair in the House of Commons was on the UK’s participation in the single currency. At that time, Cavalier Blair as prime minister seemed determined to join the euro while Roundhead Gordon Brown curmudgeonly kept thwarting his rival’s desire. May, the vicar’s daughter, was clearly on the side of Brown, a minister’s son, in this battle for the destiny of the “land of hope and glory.”
This year’s February 12 edition of The World This Week examined how weakness in the global financial system and uncertainty over Brexit darken London skies. Before her rather courteous letter to Tusk, May has saber rattled at Brussels even as she has held hands with Donald Trump.
Like Thatcher, May is betting against the EU. She has good reason to do so. As Duncan Robinson rightly observes, the EU is in an existential crisis. “Brexit; migration; populism; terrorism; a split between west and east on refugees; a split between north and south on austerity” might obliterate Jean Monnet’s vision for a peaceful and unified Europe. It might make more sense for the UK to sail away from its tortured continental neighbors to more welcoming shores instead. Hence, May is speedily implementing the Brexit referendum, which she sees as “a vote to restore” the UK’s “national self-determination.”
Yet as Kenneth Clarke argued brilliantly in the House of Commons, it might be “in the national interest” for the UK to remain a member of the EU. For all its problems, the EU is the world’s largest trading block. Negotiating a trade deal with the EU with its 27 members is not going to be easy in the two-year time frame that May has triggered. The slowing global economy and fractious European populism are not likely to help. Relying on the WTO rules alone would not be terribly beneficial to the UK.
Besides, some pesky Scots prefer the EU to the UK. For centuries, they were disciples of John Calvin of Geneva while the English followed Henry VIII’s Church of England. For the last 300 years, the Scots and the English have endured a difficult marriage. As the UK divorces the EU, Scotland is plotting to escape from the UK. A day before May’s letter reached Tusk, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon won a vote in the Scottish Parliament that gives her the right to seek a second independence referendum.
The jury is still out as to what will transpire because of Brexit. Will the UK prosper as the EU falls apart? Or has the UK cast itself adrift from an ailing EU that will manage to sail on? Or will the UK split apart while the EU soldiers on? Or will both the UK and the EU crumble as things fall apart?
As the old Chinese proverb goes, we live in interesting times.
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