Questions about Brexit
Theresa May keeps cards close to her chest
UK Prime Minister Theresa May stated at the outset of her premiership in July of last year that the single most important item on the political agenda of her government was the leaving of the EU. “Brexit means Brexit”, she said. She staked her political reputation on making extraction from EU a success. It was clear that for Mrs. May the severance of the UK’s institutional ties with the European Union after forty-three years of membership, which she felt the referendum of 23 June 2016 mandated her to pursue, would be a success if it were a radical, clean surgical cut.
Speaking in Bahrain a few months later, May was a little more specific: “a red, white and blue Brexit” was what she was aiming for. Did that mean a Brexit which would please all parties in the UK? A year after the plebecite and four months since May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the debate in parliament and in the media as to whether Brexit should be “hard” or “soft”, as to whether membership of the single market and/or the customs union should continue shows no sign of being resolved.
Official thinking on Brexit is as opaque as on the day the referendum result was announced. Even during the campaign leading up to the general election she called for 8 June, Mrs. May kept her negotiating cards so close to her chest that no one understood what Brexit entailed for her, despite her leading the discussions. Does the British PM even know her own mind?
Best possible deal for Britain
In her speech from the throne on 21 June at the State Opening of Parliament which followed the June 8 general election, Queen Elizabeth II declared that her government was resolved to pursue and obtain the “best possible deal” for the UK on leaving the EU. With negotiations still in their early days, it is slowly dawning on the UK team headed by Brexit Minister David Davis and on the Whitehall mandarins that it is Michel Barnier and the Brussels fonctionaires who will establish the terms of any departure.
It is they too who will determine any future trading and security arrangement between the UK and the EU 27. The language used in all the Brexit rhetoric in the UK seems strangely misplaced: one usually works for “the best possible deal” when joining an association or club, not when one is wilfully leaving. Does the UK understand that it is the EU which will dictate the terms?
Despite all the bluster about bi-lateral trade deals with the USA and Japan mooted by Theresa May in the coulisses of the G 20 in Hamburg on 6 – 7 July and the UK going it alone as a “global player” (Mrs. May, in her much heralded Brexit strategy speech at Lancaster House in January 2017), no one has given any thought to what life after Brexit will be like nor what departure from the EU will mean for the British economy or for the UK society of tomorrow. These are further questions to which not even the most prescient political pundit has an answer.
What is becoming clear is that whether it is the Confederation of British Industries and the City of London who want Brexit to be “soft” or the Tory right, with the pages of The Spectator, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail presenting their case with a respect for the truth which would make even Kellyanne Conway blush, who want it to be “hard”, all are focused on what will be best for the UK, without any precise idea as to what that will entail.
The Brexit debate in the media and in the Houses of Parliament has centred exclusively thus far on “delivery for Britain” and on the “best possible deal”. No attention had been given to the way Brexit will affect the other EU countries, especially the smaller ones, or the Union as a whole until John Bruton, former Taoiseach of Ireland (1994 – 97) and ex-EU ambassador to the USA (2004 – 09), entered into the fray.
The wellbeing of EU27
Mr. Bruton, writing the The GUARDIAN on Saturday 1 July, pointed out that the UK had come up with no solution concerning the problems UK withdrawal from the EU would cause the other twenty-seven countries. The country likely to suffer most from Brexit is Ireland, the only EU member state with a land border with the UK. Bruton pulled no punches. He considers Brexit an “unfriendly act” towards a neighbour with which, in joining the EEC on the same day in 1973, it was partner in the family of European nations for forty-three years.
Damage to the EU as a whole or to any of its member states in particular can only jaundice future relations between the UK and the EU27 in the years ahead. Brexit is seen by many as an own goal with incalculable collateral damage. It is vital, if Brexit is not to mortgage future relations between the UK as outsider and the twenty-seven remaining member states, that Britain starts by showing it cares about the welfare of the Union.
There are many unanswered question about Brexit but that with the widest import is precisely the one raised by John Bruton. The strain Brexit is already imposing on the EU, the destabilising effect the negotiations will have on the Union as it charts its own way forward beyond it 60th anniversary, and the long-term insecurity inflicted on EU citizens in the UK and on British citizens in other member states are been given the blind eye as a deeply divided UK pursues “the best deal”. Bruton concludes: “Even if it is not a member itself, a strong EU is important for Britain…Britain needs to show that it is thinking about how that can be achieved, if it wants a reasonable Brexit outcome.” John Bruton may not say so, but consideration of that concept at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching, the common good, would cast Brexit in a totally different light.
Mgr. Patrick H. Daly
Former General Secretary COMECE
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.