If I were the European Union, I’d be wiping my hands, sighing in relief and slamming the door after the United Kingdom’s long-delayed departure. Britain had been a noisy, pushy houseguest for 47 years, and it was only growing ruder. It spent the last three years hanging out in the foyer, braying and temporizing. Even as it steps out the door, it’s trying to negotiate the most generous visitation terms: all rights with no responsibilities.
Good riddance to guests who overstay their welcome.
The UK was always demanding special exceptions to the rules. It was always attempting to smuggle its ridiculous laissez-faire ideas into continental practices. It was always boasting of its extramarital affairs with America. And, mon dieu, could it drone on at dinner about the “good old days” when the sun never set on its imperialist expanse. John Bull, indeed!
There’s no better example of this British bull than Nigel Farage, the man who practically engineered Brexit. What do you suppose he was doing for a living for the last two decades? Managing a Union Jack flag factory? Running a fish-and-chips shop in London? Growing turnips somewhere in the British countryside? No, the man who made a career of hating the EU served in the European Parliament non-stop since 1999.
He was pulling down £100,000 ($130,000) a year for doing the work of a termite, eating away the foundations of the house into which he’d been invited. Part of his time was also spent misspending funds, which forced the EU to dock his pay. At least when he complained of EU corruption, he could present one indisputable case to prove his point.
Farage’s departure from the European Parliament was of a piece with his undistinguished tenure as parliamentarian. “I’m hoping this begins the end of this project,” he crowed on his last day in the body as he waved his little Union Jack. “It’s a bad project, it isn’t just undemocratic, it’s anti-democratic.” Seems to me that the European Parliament was overly democratic by letting someone so obnoxious bite the hand that had fed him, year after year, for two decades.
What Will Be Left of Great Britain?
As for the speechifying and flag-waving, the Parliament’s vice president, Mairead McGuinness, was having none of it. “If you disobey the rules, you get cut off,” she said to the misbehaving Farage. “Please sit down, resume your seats, put your flags away — you’re leaving — and take them with you.”
It’s too bad no one ever said something like that to Boris Johnson, the erstwhile prime minister of what will soon be the incredibly shrinking United Kingdom. Johnson joined Farage in misleading the British public into cutting off their own noses to spite the EU’s face. Johnson is wittier than Farage, more willing to make fun of himself and his pomposities. But he’s still a prat. In the end, the pair have turned out to be the glycerol and nitric acid of Brexit — harmless by themselves but recklessly explosive in combination.
The nitroglycerin blast won’t reach across the Channel. The European Union will survive Brexit, thank you very much. No, Brexit will turn out to be a suicide attack on the UK itself.
The hardy people of Scotland didn’t want to leave the European Union. By a margin of 62% to 38%, they voted “remain” in the 2016 referendum. It was unanimous across all 32 council areas.
In the last UK election in December, meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (SNP) practically swept the results, gaining 13 more seats to hold a commanding 48 of 59 Scottish seats in the British Parliament (it currently holds a majority in the Scottish Parliament as well). Labor, having failed to clearly support “remain,” dropped to a single seat.
The head of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, is angling to hold another referendum on Scottish independence. The Johnson government is saying no, and that the 2014 referendum — which supported remaining in the UK by a margin of 55% to 45% — was a “once in a generation” opportunity. Sturgeon could very well retort that, because of Brexit, the UK has aged a generation in the last three years.
Support for independence today in Scotland is as close as Brexit was in 2016. The latest polls put it at around 51%. But that will likely increase as the economic impact of Brexit begins to hit. Of course, Scottish independence would also be a step toward rejoining the European Union. According to the outgoing president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, there’s enthusiasm in the EU about an independent Scotland applying for admission.
The enthusiasm goes both ways, since the Scottish economy depends a great deal on Europe. In 2018, Scottish exports to the EU grew by 4.5% to reach £16 billion. That’s less than a third of what goes to the rest of the UK, but it’s still a significant amount. Moreover, because of a growing labor deficit, Scotland has relied on EU nationals to staff the tourism and service sectors. As a sign of their europhilia, the Scots voted last week to keep the EU flag flying outside their devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Take that, Nigel Farage!
Goodbye Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland also wanted to stay in the EU — not quite so much as Scotland, but still by a significant margin of 56% to 44% in the 2016 referendum.
Brexit could have the most calamitous impact on the peace that has held between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement that effectively ended the war between these two communities also softened the border between the two parts of Ireland through demilitarization and increased cross-border exchanges.
Ever since, it’s been a delicate balance between the north and the south, and between Northern Ireland and the UK. But at least everyone was part of the EU. Not anymore. Since the Republic of Ireland remains part of the EU, a special arrangement has been made to keep Northern Ireland part of Europe’s customs union. But that will push the boundary between the UK and Ireland into the sea and also require all sorts of paperwork for the trade that passes between the two.
The unionists are upset that their link to the UK has been weakened. The republicans are angry that they’re no longer part of the EU alongside the Republic of Ireland. The various paramilitaries associated with these communities are still around, though it’s unlikely that Brexit by itself will reignite the conflict.
But the long-held dream of republicans in Northern Ireland — unification with the south — is now back on the table. And that might push the unionists up against the wall. Many are furious at Boris Johnson’s betrayal of Northern Ireland at the EU negotiating table and might probably view unification with the south as a detour back into the EU. But other unionists might be willing to go to any length to prevent that scenario.
As Nick Laird writes in The New York Review of Books: “The old binary national and religious distinctions would be complicated with economic questions, and questions about whether the Northern Irish want to be yoked to insular self-defeating Little Englanders who couldn’t care less about them, or to the largest single market in the world, which, for whatever its faults, was founded on the postwar ideals of peace and fraternity and prosperity.”
Of course, the longer Northern Ireland debates this question, the more the question might answer itself. “The demographics of Northern Ireland have been steadily shifting,” writes James Angelos in The New York Times. “Within the decade, a majority of its people will be Catholic, making the prospect of a united Ireland seem almost inevitable.”
First off, even though the UK is now officially out of the EU as of January 31, no one knows what the economic impact will be because of the one-year grace period before any of the consequences of withdrawal begin to kick in.
The UK has dodged the bullet of a no-deal exit, which would have been truly catastrophic. But during this transition period, it now faces a second bullet. Johnson is threatening a no- free-trade exit as part of his negotiations with the EU, refusing to accept European rules and regulations in exchange for privileged access to the EU market.
Even if the two sides narrow their differences, the UK will be hard hit by losing the benefits of membership. The Brexiteers have been counting on a trade deal with the United States to take up the slack. Given how vindictive and unpredictable Donald Trump can be on trade issues, that’s an especially poor horse to bet on.
According to researchers at the London School of Economics, Britons can expect a drop of 6.4% in per capita income. Whatever the UK saves in its payments to the EU — about £9 billion overall in 2018 — will be more than offset by the cost of divorce, which will be £33 billion. The UK will lose out not only on the import and export side. UK businesses won’t be able to bid on public contracts in EU member states. The UK will have to forgo R&D resources from Brussels. Young Britons won’t be able to find work so easily on the continent.
Brexit optimists point to a couple of strong indicators in the current British economy, such as low unemployment, low inflation and accelerated wage growth. See, they say, the gloom-and-doomers are wrong. But this last year has been the worst non-recession growth year in the UK since World War II.
The economic shock delivered by the initial Brexit vote in 2016 already took £1,600 out of the British pockets that they might have ordinarily had if the vote had gone in the “remain” direction. Financial services and other businesses have already moved a $1 trillion in assets to other European cities. Foreign investors who might have set up factories in England as a way to access the European market, like Honda and Nissan, are looking elsewhere. Last year, the rate of investment into the UK dropped to the lowest in six years.
Johnson is hoping that he can remake England into a low-wage, low-regulation alternative to the European Union, a “Singapore on the Thames.” Singapore? Hah, the UK should be so lucky. It will be more like Louisiana, which has also pursued a “low road” approach to competing for investment. Despite being a haven for oil and chemical companies, Louisiana is one of the two poorest states in the country and comes in dead last in the rankings of most environmentally friendly states.
The Holy Grail
The Holy Grail of the Brexiteers is not just leaving the EU but also destroying the institution, as Farage so indelicately put it. Even here, though Brexit has proven self-defeating.
The British experience of withdrawal has served as smelling salts to the rest of Europe. No other exits are on the horizon. Brexit has revealed just how beneficial EU membership is — and also the exorbitant cost of divorce.
The far right remains euroskeptical. It has also grown more powerful politically since 2016 and has more representation in the European Parliament. This access, however, has changed the political calculus. Now the euroskeptics are looking at how to change the EU from within, which is frankly a more dangerous prospect.
But that’s a European debate, which no longer will include the British. The UK is pursuing a different Holy Grail: success outside the European Union. And how likely is that prospect?
To understand the UK’s current predicament, let’s go back to the scene involving the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The Black Knight stands before a bridge to block King Arthur from crossing. Undeterred, Arthur promptly cuts off the Black Knight’s left arm.
“’Tis but a scratch,” the Black Knight says, brandishing the sword with his other arm.
Arthur promptly cuts off this arm as well.
“It’s just a flesh wound,” says the Black Knight.
Arthur cuts off first one leg and then the other.
“All right,” says what remains of the Black Knight, “let’s call it a draw.”
That’s England, limbless after its battle with the EU. Goodbye Scotland, Northern Ireland and general prosperity. Brexit has left the UK with barely a leg to stand on. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson might call that a victory. Other Brexiteers might gamely declare it a draw. Everyone else will see it much more clearly: as a veritable rout.
*[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.