Brexit: What A Mess!

Among the many confusing efforts of Britain to leave the European Union (aka Brexit) is the reaction of Donald Tusk, EU Council’s President. His most recent statement declared, “I’ve been wondering what that special place in Hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without some sketch of a plan implies a sense of betrayal of the U.K.’s past.” It’s a very personal reaction to what should be strictly a matter involving an international accord. In point of fact, the original agreement contained a specific provision for any EU participant to withdraw. Obviously, the framers envisioned that possibility, so why, now, all the highly charged rhetoric?

It is understandable that there has been a great deal of political heavy breathing going on in Britain’s House of Commons over everything from the original referendum to secede to, among other things, the need for a whole new popular vote. Of course, once again the Irish are the center of the issue, if one is to seek a suitable solution to cross-border commerce and travel (to mention just a couple of matters). For Americans unacquainted with the history, Ireland is divided: one part is an independent nation while the northern part remained part of the United Kingdom (UK). It’s even more complicated than that when considering religious difference – but that’s another story.

The issue of what would happen with Ireland, meaning both versions, without a careful and fair method of post-Brexit dealing is complicated further by the consideration of what has been called a “hard break.” That means an action to leave the EU without settling the many factors to be resolved beyond the Irish problem. These key matters include, but are not limited to a host of issues from finance to migration and investment. Some analysts are willing to suggest the UK’s entire economic system would be imperiled if no “soft landing” is provided by special agreements with the EU.

Claims of dire consequences seem to be added daily as leaders of both major parties, Conservative and Labor, are under attack for inadequate planning. It appears that the strongest cry at this time is to seek a delay of the March 29 deadline. Among other things, a demand for a second referendum is growing. A delay in taking the final step of leaving the EU would have to be approved also by the EU and there are some on the continent who are so upset at the UK that they might not allow this action to be taken. This latter step has its obvious contradiction, but that, too, is simply consistent with the entire issue.  

What is not discussed to any extent is any moral debt owed to Great Britain for its courageous role in World War II. This is something that is incomprehensible to most Americans, but most of the EU participants appear to want to discard any sense of past obligation in that regard. Unstated also is the possibility of the United States reaching out to its long-term ally and recognizing its linguistic/cultural inheritance. These two circumstances unfortunately require not only an understanding of contemporary Europe but also an acceptance of what the US/UK “special relationship” really means.

In the first instance, it appears that political thought process today is limited at best to the recollection of a generation following WWII from approximately the middle to late 1960’s. In consequence, all that preceded this period is treated as irrelevant – if it is considered in any way at all other than “ancient history.” The second issue of aid – direct and indirect – by the United States to Britain assisting in the latter’s return to its earlier pre-EU state is not openly mentioned by any side. Nonetheless, this matter definitely would have to be considered if there really was/is the “special relationship” that Washington assumed post-1941 and that has existed in one form or another through the subsequent years. It may be controversial to mention this, but either there is something “special” in the relationship or there isn’t!

In strict economic terms, and not discussed much, is the fact that the UK has the second largest economy in the EU. The largest is, of course, Germany. Angela Merkel’s government has maintained a very muted voice regarding Brexit It’s not that they don’t care, but they are very sensitive to any issue that might put them in apparent conflict with their victorious opponent during two world wars. Obviously, the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union would carry not only important economic consequences but becomes an important political factor internationally.

From a strictly practical standpoint, a UK decision to leave also places the thousands of EU guest workers in Britain in a whole new legal position. This would have to be addressed in a manner that does not drastically hinder the important contribution of these non-British workers. The reverse is also true for the sizeable number of Brits living and working in the EU. The fact is that there seems to be no easy way to accomplish what the hard core “Brexiteers” want.

The American administration of Donald Trump has been very careful to avoid getting involved in this serious tempest – not that they have much choice. It is extremely important for the U.S. not to get involved – on one side or the other. Washington wants very much not to lose in any degree the important political/military asset that is NATO. While the EU and NATO are not synonymous, any action which even appears to diminish NATO cohesion is clearly dangerous.

Unfortunately, the traditional British tactic of “muddling through” just doesn’t work on the Brexit issue. Too much is at stake for both the “Leavers” and the “Remainers.” Even Britain’s Labor Party, usually automatically against any Conservative-sponsored issue, finds itself unable to hew to such a line on Brexit. The Tories themselves don’t seem that solid on the issue either. It’s a mess – and that is about the only thing that can be agreed.