Why It’s Taking so Long to Deliver Brexit
As yet another extension seems inevitable, here is a reminder of why “getting it done” so difficult.
I have been a proponent of the European ‘project’ ever since I was old enough to take an interest in national and international politics. I recall the UK’s repeated applications to join what was then the 6 member EEC in the early 1960s, and disappointment at our repeated rejection by France. In 1988 I became a founder member of the Liberal Democrats, having previously been a member of the Liberal Party. I served both parties as a councillor at county and district level. During that time I had the opportunity to visit some of the EU institutions and to learn something about the way they operate.
Upon retirement, 13 years ago this month, I left the UK and came to live in Ireland. My son, his Irish wife and their daughter were already here. So I am one of the approximately 3 million UK citizens domiciled in another EU country.
I believe passionately in the ideals that underpin the EU. In the years of the cold war it provided a bastion of political and economic strength against the might of the Soviet Union. Of course NATO provided the military backing, but economic and political unity were, I believe, key components of the defence of Western civilisation against communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union it was important that the countries of Eastern Europe, released from the yoke of Russian domination, were welcomed into the EU and provided with the opportunity to realise the benefits of life in a free society.
There is far more, culturally and historically, that unites us than divides us.
We now face new threats, from climate change to the rise of China as a global power. European solidarity therefore remains a priority.
The European Union
The EU is first and foremost an international trading bloc. The Single Market ensures that goods traded between the member nations are produced to an agreed set of standards in circumstances that minimise the exploitation of workers. The Customs Union, by removing tariffs on goods traded between member nations, removes the need for customs barriers at the borders between those nations.
At the same time the UK is able to take advantage of free trade agreements reached between the EU and around 70 other nations in order to trade with them on favourable terms which will need to be renegotiated if the UK leaves.
In common with other members, the UK has secured exemptions from certain of the rules and regulations that enforce these standards. It is not a member of the Eurozone, retaining its own currency. It is not a member of Schengen, a scheme that facilitates visa free travel, residence and work throughout those nations that are signed up to it.
Instead, the UK, as a member of the Single Market, is obliged to permit freedom of movement of people for the purpose of work and education. This does not extend to the automatic right to social welfare payments. The citizens of one member nation, whilst resident in another, must be economically self-supporting. If, after a reasonable period, they have not found a job, they are obliged to leave. The UK government chose not to enforce this aspect of the legislation which many UK citizens were, and, it seems, still are, unaware of.
Similarly, when Eastern European nations became members there was a transition period during which existing members were permitted to control the number of workers they accepted from those nations. Again, the UK government chose not to apply those controls, probably under pressure from business sectors, such as agriculture and hospitality, that saw an opportunity to exploit the availability of comparatively cheap labour to do jobs that UK citizens were unwilling to take on.
Sometimes such migrant workers were employed in breach of EU laws of which ordinary citizens were unaware so that, once again, the EU was blamed for creating conditions that were actually well within the ability of the UK government to control had it chosen to do so.
The fundamental principle under which the EU budget operates is that the richest nations contribute and the poorest regions, some of which are within the richest nations, receive. The simple theory behind this is that by helping the poorer nations and regions to develop and, thereby, improve the economic welfare of their citizens, the possibility of conflict over resources is reduced. It is a principle with which not everyone agrees and is certainly one of the factors underlying the desire of some UK citizens to see the UK leave.
So long as it can be shown that supported schemes meet specific criteria, the way that EU funds are distributed and spent is left to the recipient national or local governments. Thus it is unfair to blame the EU if such funds are used to support unnecessary or inappropriate schemes. They are intended to be used for social and economic infrastructure developments that increase the ability of the recipient region to attract private investment that creates long term employment. If you want the EU to exercise greater control over such spending you need more, not fewer bureaucrats, and to give up, not reclaim, local control.
The Exercise of Democracy
In most EU member states elections are conducted using systems that produce a result in which the number of representatives of each party in parliament or legislative assembly is roughly proportional to the number of votes cast for that party. This is also true of the EU institutions. The practical effect of this is that, more often than not, no one party has a parliamentary majority and two or more parties have to come together to agree a programme that is broadly in the national interest. That also tends to mean a centrist approach, either centre-left or centre-right. The extremes at either end of the political spectrum have little say. It should be no surprise that I, as a centrist, approve of such systems and the results they produce.
In the UK, however, the system regularly produces a majority for one party (not always the same party) even though that party may have fewer than 40% of the votes cast. Thus the majority of UK citizens are used to a situation in which their needs are ignored in favour of those of a minority.
The 2016 referendum provided a rare opportunity in which they were assured, albeit dishonestly, that the wishes of the majority would be respected. It was presented as a simple choice between leaving or remaining, with the question of what kind of relationship, if any, the UK might seek to establish with the EU after it left, buried under a fog of speculation. In or out of the Customs Union? The Single Market? A relationship like the one Norway has? Or Switzerland?
The Irish Problem
This is something that was barely touched upon during the 2016 campaign but has proved to be an impenetrable stumbling block ever since. To understand why, it is necessary to review, however briefly, 850 years of British and Irish history and religion.
Around 100 years after the Norman conquest of England two childhood friends became respectively King of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. They disagreed about the extent to which the King should interfere in the affairs of the Church. At some point the king is supposed to have said something along the lines of “Will someone rid me of this troublesome priest.”
Like most such remarks uttered in moments of frustration it was not meant to be taken literally. But a few knights who wanted to curry favour with the king did. They murdered the Archbishop in his cathedral.
It so happened that the Pope was exercised about the fact that the Church authorities in Ireland were backsliding so, when an Irish provincial king was deposed, he used that fact to persuade the English (Norman) king to come to his aid. The king, needing to appease the Pope, agreed.
As a direct result, Ireland became subject to the English Crown, its land parcelled out to assorted knights and barons who had assisted with the invasion.
Move forward 4 centuries to the reformation and the long period of conflict in the British Isles between protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The Irish refused to be reformed, despite Cromwell’s massacre of tens of thousands and the confiscation of land from Catholic owners, giving it to protestants. These religious wars were effectively brought to an end when a Dutch Prince defeated a largely Catholic army on Irish soil and was crowned King. Troublesome tenants were removed from Scottish land to be replaced by sheep. They were granted large parts of Ulster in a further attempt to dilute Catholic influence on the island.
At the beginning of the 19th century Ireland, which had hitherto had a degree of autonomy but with its own Parliament still subject to the Crown, became a part of the United Kingdom. Throughout the next century the Irish campaigned for independence until, just under a hundred years ago, it was granted. But throughout the campaign the Ulster Protestants objected, so the treaty that granted independence drew an arbitrary border around 6 of Ulster’s 9 counties.
They would remain in the UK whilst the other 26 counties of Ireland became an independent republic. That division remained controversial, and a civil rights campaign in the 6 counties at the end of the 1960s escalated into widespread acts of terrorism on the island and within England.
This ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty, underwritten by the EU and the USA, which, among other things, enshrined the idea that citizens of the 6 counties have dual citizenship, able to choose to hold UK or Irish passports, and total freedom of movement of goods and people between the two parts of the island.
That is, of course, perfectly practical so long as both the UK and Ireland remain members of the EU. It is incompatible with the UK’s desire to leave the EU in order “to control our borders”.
There is a lot of talk about technological solutions, and the arrangement agreed in principle in December of 2017 was that, until those solutions are available, the 6 counties will remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union (the “backstop”).
It is this part of the Withdrawal Agreement, reached by Prime Minister May and the EU at the end of last year, that failed to secure the support of a majority in Parliament. Prime Minister Johnson’s new version leaves Northern Ireland in the Customs Union, an arrangement which can be ended by a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly in four years time.
Parliament has approved this in principle but requires more time to debate the details. The Prime Minister has paused that process, awaiting a decision from the EU on the granting of an extension beyond 31st October. The duration of that extension, if granted, and how it might be used, are in doubt. It could simply give time for amendments to be introduced, such as a request for the whole of the UK to remain in the customs union, a move to hold a second referendum, or a general election.
My preferred solution?
Cancel Brexit, although this could only happen after a general election or second referendum. Failing that, the whole of the UK should remain in the customs union.
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared as a guest post on Jill Dennison’s Filosofa’s Word blog.