Baffled by Brexit
For the last three years a lot of my Brit friends have have been debating the issue of the UK leaving the EU. It’s something that keeps cropping up on social media and in blogs but the more the issue is debated, the more opaque it seems to become to outsiders like me.
As far as I’m aware it’s been going on for nearly 60 years. I first became aware of it when the Brits applied to join and General de Gaulle gave a resounding Non! Flanders and Swann made it memorable by writing a song about it: “Eyetie, Benelux, Germany and me, that’s my market recipe.” Eventually the Brits did manage to get in (over de Gaulle’s dead body) and now they want out. But it seems that having decided that they want to go, they want the assurance that they can have their cake and eat it.
I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. It’s no skin off my nose whether they stay or leave. But sixty years!
One blogging friend whose blog I’ve been following for years has just written an article about it in the Church Times, Are the Bishops really listening to Leavers?:
The bishops write: “The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit . . .” One way in which power is experienced as abusive is when those with power (such as a bishop) say to those without power (a normal voter) that the voter does not know what he or she really wants. To say that there is something that “lies behind the vote for Brexit” is to disparage the desire for Brexit in and of itself, and thus is an exercise in disempowerment.
Leavers have become accustomed to being slighted in this way, to having their understanding and integrity impugned, to being told that we voted for Brexit only because of X, and, if those in power solved X, well, we don’t need Brexit any more, do we? This is not the product of genuine listening: it is the imputation of false consciousness and a rather un-Anglican attempt to “make windows into men’s souls”. It is essential that, if there is to be a reconciliation between the different sides on Brexit, such language is abandoned.
But I suspect you have to have been following the issue closely for the last 60 years to know what he’s on about.
It seems to me, looking from a distance, that the result of the 2016 referendum was pretty close, and they really should have looked for a 2/3 majority before deciding to change. They should also have specified that there should be at least a 55/45% majority in favour of “leave” in each of the four countries of the UK. As it is, England and Wales wanted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the EU. But the fact is that the UK government did decide to leave and set the whole leaving process going.
One of the difficulties this creates is a land border between the EU and the UK in Northern Ireland. Why this creates a special difficulty is rather puzzling, since there are other land borders between the EU and non-EU countries, 23 of them actually. Why not do whatever they do there, since it is simply a matter of adding a 24th land border?
So my question is, why doesn’t the UK opt for one of the following:
- England and Wales leave the EU and the UK simultaneously, while the rump UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) remains in the EU.
- The UK leaves the EU and Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK and go their separate ways, applying to rejoin the EU if they wish.
- Have another referendum stipulating a clear majority (at least 55%-45%) in each country.
Can any of my UK friends explain why the present indecision is better than any of those, or which of those might be better than the present shilly-shalying?
The crucial Brexit issue is the Northern Ireland border, which is not a normal international border, but rather like a State Line in the USA, but which divides villages, streets and even houses. There are 300 crossings. There is an international agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland to keep this border open, without passport checks. It is thus porous.
If the UK leaves the EU it will have to “internationalise” this border, and this would trigger a return to the low-grade semi-civil war that Northern Ireland had (in certain locations and areas) for 30 years, during which time I lived there – in a pretty peaceful and mixed-religion part.
Northern Ireland has been without a government for over 2 years, because the ‘Power-sharing’ arrangement, set up by the British and Irish governments, broke down over the small question of making Irish an official language, as it is in the Republic. The Unionists absolutely refuse to allow this to happen.
Your idea of the UK voluntarily breaking up is quite childish. How would Oregon or Maine leave the US ? How would Flanders secede from Belgium or Sicily from Italy ? Not to mention Catalonia from Spain!
The UK is a federation in all but name, even though Scotland has its own legal and education systems. There would have to be a whole raft of elections, and if Brexit is anything to go by, there would be a great deal of violence. Thousands would try to flee to the Isle of Man or Channel Islands (not part of the UK), or to the Irish Republic… It wouldn’t be Yugoslavia but “British” (a word that actually doesn’t mean more than a feeling) society would founder.
Meanwhile, a Belgian I know of, has an emergency suitcase packed in case she has to flee to Belgium.
I am fortunate in having an Irish passport (as is the right of most people of Northern Ireland). I tore up my British one in 1983 and sent it to Margaret Thatcher.
Note: under the independence treaty of 1922, inhabitants of the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland, have unusual rights in the UK, and cannot, for example, be deported. If resident in the UK (as hundreds of thousands were and are) they automatically have the right to vote in all elections.
Thanks very much for some interesting insights.
But I think what is (and was) childish was the UK government’s decision to go ahead with Brexit when two of the four constituent countries of the UK voted against it. They should simply have said that there wasn’t a clear mandate and gone on to deal with real problems.
Of course by now the Brexit thing and the way it has been handled has created or exacerbated a whole lot of problems that ought to have been foreseen, and planned for, but apparently weren’t.