Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Future Tense

I think the major shock about the UK vote to leave the EU was the transformation in British culture that the vote seems to represent. From having been in the vanguard of the global economy and the globalized society, the UK seems to have rejected much of what it seemed to stand for. The aftermath of the vote- racist statements, racist attacks and all seemed to have turned the conventional wisdom about Britain on its head. The country was not as open or tolerant or globalized as it purported to be. This is despite the fact that a significant faction of the Leave campaign believed that the the problem with the EU is that it is not globalized enough. The reality is that whatever the Libertarians amongst the Leave camp thought they were getting, it is now all too clear that the isolationists, not the globalizers, are the big winners from the vote... at least so far.

If Brexit is a process, not a destination, as we are now being told, then it is still totally unclear what the destination might be. One nasty shock for the incoming May government has been that the option that would probably be accepted by the majority of the the UK- a kind of associate membership of the EU, via either the EEA or some kind of bespoke agreement- now looks by far the most difficult solution to bring off. The confrontational attitude adopted by the UK government has met its match in the Juncker Comission, which has wasted little time in inflicting as many petty humiliations on the new PM as possible. The appointment of Michel Barnier as the Commission's negotiator was the first, followed by the repeated cold shoulder to the UK at every meeting, including forcing Theresa May to wait until 1 am to address the meeting of the European Council. I suppose we can hardly blame the Commission for taking the hump against the UK, particularly since it reflects the deep anger that many governments feel about what the UK is trying to do. As Xavier Bettel, the Luxembourg Prime Minister Minister puts it  "Before they were in and they had many opt-outs; now they want to be out with many opt-ins.

Meanwhile Conservative blow-hards, such as Bernard Jenkin, insist - with precisely no evidence- that a total withdrawal from all form of EU collaboration was what was voted for on June 23rd. 

The choice is becoming stark: national humiliation as we create mayhem in much of our economy and face a serious and prolonged economic crisis through breaking all ties to the EU, or national humiliation as we seek to reverse the decision taken on June 23rd. As the storm clouds gather, there are more than a few people in London and in Brussels who believe that the UK may indeed change course. The Conservatives have sought to own Brexit, but now it is clear that whatever Brexit does in fact mean, it is bad and the Tories will get the blame. The big swing in Witney and the likely gain of Richmond Park is putting the Lib Dems back on the map, and despite the current high poll ratings for the Conservatives, the reality is that these leads could be very shallow indeed. 

Yet despite the growing economic and political storm in London, we can not ignore the abject failure of the Juncker Commission. The hapless former Premier of Luxembourg has now presided over the debacle of Brexit and the seeming collapse of CETA with Canada. This second failure is possible of even more moment than the first. The fact is that the crisis in CETA speaks to the very worst paralysis of the EU, and a failure to ratify would demoralize even the most fervent defenders of the Commission. Whereas the Commission has little choice but to be reactive to the UK, they have proven unable to be proactive to address the problems with CETA ratification. Clearly this bodes very badly for the far more complicated discussions to come with the UK. The fact is that the Commission may not be able to deliver any kind of soft Brexit- regardless that this is the majority will in both the UK and the rest of the EU.

Faced with the choice, it may become literally impossible for the UK to withdraw. Certainly there are voices on both sides of the channel that are beginning to think that, as the political pendulum swings in the UK strongly away from Brexit, that the British may opt for the economically less painful version of national humiliation rather than another. The paralysis that the Juncker commission has engendered does not seem to have been shaken by the prospect of the British departure, but just possibly it might be shaken up by a British lack of departure. 

Maybe the Brits will return to the global future after all.

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