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Brexit: No Turning Point Yet

Even with Donald Trump scheduled for a brief visit to the United Kingdom this week amid massive protests, it’s still ‘all Brexit, all of the time’ in the sceptred isle – and the long struggle over the nature of the deal that will define Britain’s relationship with the European Union post-exit allegedly reached a turning point last weekend.

“They had nothing else to offer. They had no Plan B. She faced them down,” said a senior government official about the hard-line Brexiteers after Prime Minister Theresa May got them to sign up to a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ at a crisis cabinet meeting last Friday. But the armistice between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions in her fractious Conservative Party lasted less than 48 hours.

On Sunday morning hard-line Brexiteer David Davis, the ludicrously titled Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, reneged on his short-lived support for May’s negotiating goals and resigned in protest. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suit, claiming that May’s plan meant “the (Brexit) dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

The sheer fecklessness of the ‘Brexit dream’ is epitomised by Johnson, who first compared May’s negotiating plans to “polishing a turd”, then came round to supporting them for about 36 hours, and finally resigned, saying that they would reduce the UK to a “vassal state” with the “status of a colony” of the EU. Yet at no point in the discussion did either of them offer a coherent counter-proposal.

And what is all this Sturm und Drang about? A negotiating position, devised by May with great difficulty two years after the referendum that yielded 52% support for an undefined ‘Brexit’, which could never be accepted by the European Union. Its sole virtue was that it seemed possible to unite the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions of the Conservative Party behind it. But the unity imposed by May broke down before the weekend was over.

All four of the great offices of state – prime minister, chancellor (finance minister), foreign secretary and home secretary (interior minister) – are now held by Conservative politicians who voted Remain in the referendum. Yet they are unable to persuade their party to accept even a ‘soft Brexit’ that preserves Britain’s existing access to its biggest trading partner, the EU.

The Brexiteers’ power lies in their implicit threat to stage a revolt that overthrows May, fatally splits the Conservative Party, and precipitates an early election that brings the Labour Party to power. They may not really have the numbers to do that – it’s widely assumed that a majority of the Conservative members of parliament secretly want a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – but May dares not test that assumption.

So, horrified by the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn (who is regularly portrayed by the right-wing media as a Lenin in waiting), the Conservatives are doomed to cling desperately to power even though they can probably never deliver a successful Brexit. And the time is running out.

The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March of next year whether there is a deal that maintains most of its current trade with the EU or not. In practice, the deadline for an agreement is next October, since time must be allowed for 27 other EU members to ratify the deal. If there is no deal, the UK simply ‘crashes out’, and chaos ensues.

The volume of trade in goods and services between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU is so great, and the preparation for documenting the safety and origins of goods and collecting customs on them so scanty, that the new border would simply freeze up.

That would cause great difficulty for many European enterprises, but for Britain it would be a catastrophe. As an example, two-fifths of the components for cars built in the UK are sourced from elsewhere in the EU. Yet most of the time available for negotiating a soft Brexit has already been wasted, and Britain still does not have a realistic negotiating position.

This preposterous situation is almost entirely due to the civil war within the Conservative Party between the Brexit faction the rest. The only reason that there was a referendum at all was because former prime minister David Cameron thought that a decisive defeat in a referendum would shut the Brexiteers up and end that war. He miscalculated.

The Brexiteers spun a fantasy of an oppressive EU that was the cause of all Britain’s troubles and sold it to the nostalgic older generation, the unemployed and underemployed who were looking for somebody to blame, and sundry nationalists of all colours.

They narrowly won the referendum with the help of a rabidly nationalist right-wing press, spending well beyond the legal limits in the campaign – and, it now appears, with considerable support from Russia. (The biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, mega-rich investor Arron Banks, met the Russian ambassador at least eleven times during the run-up to the referendum and the subsequent two months.)

There’s still a chance that reason will prevail before the UK crashes out of the EU, of course. But the odds are no better than even.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The volume…position”; and “The Brexiteers…colours”)

Voters’ Remorse, or The Morning After the Night Before

Everybody in British politics had been talking about the probable consequences of a vote to leave the European Union for months, but they are nevertheless all in shock now that that they face the reality of Brexit. The level of voters’ remorse is so high that a re-run of the referendum today would probably produce the opposite result. But it is hard to imagine how such a thing could be justified. (Best two out of three referendums?)

The remorse has been driven by the collapse of the pound, panic in the markets, and other consequences of a “Leave” vote that the Brexit campaign had promised would not happen. Moreover, leaders of the “Leave” campaign like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith are rapidly walking away from the inflated or simply untrue claims that they made during the campaign.

They have all renounced their promise that Britain would save half a billion dollars a week in contributions to the EU if it left. They now admit that Britain could not prevent free movement of EU citizens into Britain if it wants to have continued access to the EU’s “single market. “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again,” admitted Leave campaigner and former Conservative cabinet minister Liam Fox.

It is also now clear that the EU will not be generous and patient in negotiating the British departure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the EU would not tolerate British “cherry-picking” when negotiations on subjects like trade and the free movement of people finally begin. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not,” she said.

The Brexit leaders had no plan for what to do after winning the referendum, probably because they didn’t really expect to win it. And their nightmare deepened when Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who had called the referendum in the belief that Brexit would be rejected, took his revenge on the leading Brexiteers.

Announcing his resignation, Cameron promised to stay in office until October to give the Conservative Party time to find a new leader. And during that time, contrary to his previous statements, he would not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

Article 50 is the trigger that would start the irrevocable process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. By not pulling it for months, Cameron is allowing time for the painful consequences of leaving the EU to mount up and become horribly clear. Then the new prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, probably Boris Johnson, will have the honour of pulling the trigger and taking the blame for making that pain permanent.

So it’s hardly surprising that Johnson, despite having pulled off the most remarkable coup in British politics for decades, was looking distinctly glum on the Morning After the Night Before. He looks and behaves like a well-bred British version of Donald Trump, but his “dumb blond” act is just a facade. His political future has been sabotaged, and he knows it.

But will all this fear and remorse really lead to some sort of turn-around in the exit process? Left to stew in its own juices for six months, British politics might eventually come up with a typically muddled compromise that postponed the final break with the EU indefinitely – but it isn’t going to have six months.

There has been great impatience with British behaviour in the other EU countries for many years. Britain has always been the odd man out, demanding exemptions from various rules and agreements, rebates on budgetary contributions, special treatment of every sort. And now that it has “decided” to leave (sort of), it’s playing the same old game, asking everybody else to wait while it deals with its domestic political problems.

“The European Union as a whole has been taken as a hostage by an internal party fight of the Tories (the British Conservatives),” said Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament. “And I’m not satisfied today to hear that (Cameron) wants to step down only in October and once more everything is put on hold until the Tories have decided about the next prime minister.”

To make matters worse the opposition Labour Party is also descending into chaos, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a revolt over his half-hearted support for the “Remain” campaign, which may have been the main reason for Brexit’s narrow victory. (Half the Labour Party’s traditional supporters didn’t even know that their own party supported staying in the EU.) Both major British political parties, for the moment, are essentially leaderless.

British politics is a train-wreck, unable and unwilling to respond to EU demands for rapid action, but the EU cannot afford to wait five or six months for the exit negotiations to begin. The markets need certainty about the future if they are not to go into meltdown, and one way or another the EU’s leaders will try to provide it. It is going to be a very ugly divorce.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“They have…Fox”; and “There has…problems”)

Brexit: The Apocalyse

How’s this for apocalyptic? “As a historian I fear Brexit (a British vote to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23 June) could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety,” said Donald Tusk, the President of the European Union, in an interview published on Monday in the German newspaper Bild.

Tusk is not alone in his worries: last weekend Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, fretted aloud that the British referendum could trigger an avalanche of demands for special treatment or in/out referendums in other EU member countries.

“Other EU member states [may] say: ‘Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave,’” Wallstrom told the BBC. Like Tusk, she actually fears that the whole 60-year experiment in European unity may start to fall apart if Britain leaves.

EU politicians are not much interested in what happens to the United Kingdom after it leaves (which it may well do: an opinion poll last Friday gave “Leave” a ten-point lead). Britain was usually whiny and often downright obstructive in its dealings with the EU, and if it now chooses to commit a spectacular act of self-mutilation, the general European view will be that it deserves everything it gets.

That is likely to be quite a lot. If the UK loses duty-free access to the EU’s “single market” of 28 countries and 500 million people, it becomes far less attractive to non-European investors who want access to that market. It also loses every trade deal it has with other countries, since they were all negotiated by the EU as a whole. Britain could spend ten years trying to renegotiate them on its own, and end up with much worse terms.

The resultant collapse in national income might be avoided if Britain remained a part of the single market, which is theoretically possible. Both Norway and Switzerland belong to it without being EU members – but they have to pay in just as much as if they were members, and they have to accept the EU rules on freedom of movement, which means that any citizen of any EU member can live and work in their country.

That’s not going to go down well with the leaders of the “Leave” campaign, since their strongest selling points are stopping immigration, and “saving money” by ending payments to the EU. They simply could not survive politically if they openly abandoned those goals. Nor would EU leaders be willing to fudge a deal: in order to deter other members from leaving, it will be politically necessary for them to punish Britain economically.

You might wonder how any sane British politician, knowing this, would risk holding a referendum, let alone advocate a “Leave” vote. The answer is a foolish miscalculation (on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron), and reckless ambition (on the part of his would-be successor, Boris Johnson).

Cameron promised the referendum three years ago merely as a device for preserving the unity of the Conservative Party. It would pacify the right wing of his party, which wanted out, but he thought he would never have to hold the referendum because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto it. Unfortunately, the Conservatives won a narrow majority in last year’s election, the coalition ended, and Cameron was stuck with his promise.

So far, so stupid – and then Boris Johnson, Britain’s somewhat better-mannered answer to Donald Trump, took the leadership of the “Leave” campaign. Johnson was not even a dedicated anti-EU campaigner, but he was certainly dedicated to taking the leadership of the Conservative Party and the prime ministership away from David Cameron.

Leading the “Out” campaign to victory, forcing Cameron’s resignation and taking his place was the only way Johnson could achieve his ambition, so he took it. He has been utterly ruthless in his campaign tactics, telling lies he knows to be lies (like how much Britain pays in to the EU), and using anti-immigrant rhetoric that reeks of racism. So he may win.

But he wouldn’t enjoy being prime minister much, given what would happen to the United Kingdom if he wins. Scotland will certainly vote “Remain”, and it would probably hold a second independence referendum and leave the UK rather than be dragged out of the European Union by English votes. And the truncated Britain that Johnson led would be dealing with a world of economic woe.

But what about the EU? Would it fragment? Would that lead to the destruction of “Western political civilisation in its entirety”, as Tusk suggested? (By that he presumably meant the end of the trans-Atlantic cooperation between the United States and a more or less unified Europe that has characterised Western strategy for the past sixty years.)

Probably not. The EU is in the economic doldrums, and the prospect of several million refugees coming in has facilitated the rise of nationalist parties, some verging on neo-fascist, in a number of member countries. But the advantages of the single market would probably be enough to hold the EU together, especially if the members had the horrible example of Britain’s fate as a warning.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The resultant…economically”)

Merkel’s Counter-Strike

“What we have today is a story based on speculation about what (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel might have said about something (British Prime Minster) David Cameron might say in the future,” said David Davis, a prominent Conservative member of parliament, in London on Sunday. So no big deal, then?

It’s a very big deal: Merkel is pulling the rug out from under Cameron. For all his tough talk about renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership in the European Union, she is saying, he has no cards in his hand.

At the EU summit on 25 October, Cameron said that changing the existing rules that guarantee freedom of movement for workers within the EU would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe.” No, said Angela Merkel, it won’t work: “We have the basic principle of free movement. We won’t meddle with that.”

In other words, if Cameron doesn’t like the membership rules, tough. He can hold a referendum if he wants, and leave the EU if he wins. But there’s no way he can get the other 27 members to change the basic rules of the organisation just to solve his little political problem at home.

In fact, Merkel will even try to ensure that Cameron loses next year’s British election so that there is no referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Being an experienced politician, however, Merkel delivered that part of her message in a deniable way.

It was officials from Merkel’s own office and the German foreign ministry who briefed the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on her plans in that regard. They were not to be quoted by name – and it was left to the rest of us to figure out what her words would do to Cameron’s re-election chances.

Cameron has recently been talking about imposing “quotas” on low-skilled people from other EU countries moving to Britain, in a desperate attempt to get around the EU rules. “Should Cameron persist (in this quota plan), Chancellor Angela Merkel would abandon her efforts to keep Britain in the EU,” Merkel’s officials told Der Spiegel. “With that a point of no return would be reached.” Shape up or ship out.

Merkel has launched a counter-strike that may well bring Cameron down. By making it crystal clear that his “renegotiation” strategy cannot work, she is effectively telling British voters that if they re-elect Cameron’s Conservatives in  the election that is due next May, they will be voting to leave the EU. The election itself becomes a referendum on EU membership – a referendum which she obviously thinks Cameron will lose.

She is probably right. For all the fulmination in the British right-wing press about the country being overrun by immigrants from poorer EU countries, public support for EU membership in Britain is higher than it has been since 1991. It is still only a modest 56 percent, but that is a lot higher than the 44 percent support that the same Ipsos MORI polling organisation found only two years ago.

The truth is that only 13 percent of Britain’s population is “foreign-born”, exactly the same as the immigrant share in the population of the United States or Germany. The immigrants are not taking British jobs: the UK has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. The problem is perceptions – and particularly the perceptions of those who normally vote Conservative.

The right-wing media in Britain, as in most countries, pander to the nationalism and the fear of foreigners that is rampant among the older and the poorer sections of the population. Too many foreigners coming in, living off our taxes and stealing our jobs is a simple (though rarely an accurate) explanation for why this section of the population feels marginalised, so this narrative works well with them.

Britain is pulling in more EU workers than usual because its economy is doing relatively better than Germany, France, Spain, etc. The numbers are not overwhelming, but under EU rules Britain has no right to bar them, so anti-EU nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment have grown into a stronger force than usual – but only on the right.

This would normally be to the advantage of the Conservative Party, whose own right-wing “backwoodsmen” share these views. In normal times, when the grown-ups are in charge, the party harvests these votes each election while never intending to do anything so foolish economically as to actually quit the EU.

Cameron belongs to the grown-up majority in the Conservative Party, and is not personally anti-EU. But the emergence and explosive growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), specifically tailored to appeal to the anti-immigrant-and-EU vote, has panicked the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Cameron has had to move further and further right to placate them and compete with UKIP, so he can no longer afford to be sensible about the EU. Merkel has understood this, and has effectively written him off even though she is a conservative herself. Her strategy now is to force Cameron into an openly anti-EU stance, split the right-wing vote in Britain evenly between the Conservatives and UKIP, and open the way for Labour to win the election.

Because that’s the only way she can see to keep Britain in the European Union.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The truth…everywhere”; and “This would…EU”)