The breakdown of British pragmatism over Brexit

09.02.19 Publication:

We British used to talk proudly about how pragmatic, reasonable and logical we are, by comparison with what we have liked to see as our impractical, unreasonable and emotional continental European neighbours. Yet during the two and a half years since we voted in 2016 in a referendum to leave the European Union, Britain – and especially British politics – has instead seemed emotional, irrational and rather chaotic. With the deadline for our departure at the end of March getting ever closer, our behaviour is not improving. Clarity is not emerging out of the “Brexit” fog.


National character cannot change overnight, even in the messy world of politics, so it is worth asking why this has happened. If we do so, we might even get an idea of what is going to happen with Britain’s Brexit from the EU now that, in a vote on January 29, our Parliament has voted to send our prime minister back to renegotiate the divorce deal with the EU that she had said only weeks before could not be changed.


An abrupt and chaotic Brexit is one of the big risks overshadowing the world right now, along with the US-China trade war and the possibility of a constitutional crisis in the United States. Brexit is a rather technical issue, but the chance of a sudden breach in international law and international treaties is the sort of risk that can produce financial crises and big problems for corporations of all nationalities, including Japanese.


There are two major explanations for Britain’s Brexit mess. One has to do with the complexity of our own country, a complexity illustrated by our country’s official name: “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. The second explanation has to do with the complexity of the European Union, which means also the complexity of international relations of all kinds.


The United Kingdom, the country we call “Britain” or “the UK”, is actually a federation of four separate nations that has been formed during more than 800 years but which has never chosen to federate through a single, unified constitution. That is why we have a reputation for being pragmatic: the relationship between England (the dominant nation), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has evolved through a long series of legal and political steps rather than ever being defined by a formal constitutional text.


In recent decades, the most problematic part of the United Kingdom has been Northern Ireland. That small nation was formed only 90 years ago when the rest of Ireland won its independence from the UK, amid a very painful civil war. Then from 1968 until 1998 a new civil war broke out in Northern Ireland, a society divided over whether to maintain membership of the UK or to unify with the rest of Ireland. More than 3,000 people died in that civil war, until it was brought to an end with an international treaty between the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the EU in 1998.


It is that treaty which has caused the greatest problems for Britain’s divorce from the EU. It was agreed in 1998 that Northern Ireland (the population of which is just about 1.8 million) and the Republic of Ireland (population 4.8 million) would avoid having to have any formal international border between them – since border controls inhibit commerce and attract violence – by maintaining a common set of rules on the island concerning business and trade. This looked easy to do while both sides were inside the EU, since most rules concerning business and trade were being set by the EU. Brexit makes this much harder. Yet in December 2017, the British government agreed formally to do whatever it takes in our EU divorce deal to avoid the need for any border controls on the island of Ireland.


So an island with a total population equivalent of less than one-sixth of Greater Tokyo is posing a huge difficulty. We all want to avoid a return to the civil war of 1968-98. But then comes the second complexity.


The huge array of international agreements on matters such as aviation, shipping, trade, investment, banking and others reflects the sophistication and inter-connectedness of our post-1945 era. The European Union, which has grown from six countries when it began in 1957 to 28 countries now, represents a way to cope with that inter-connectedness by means of co-operation by a group of neighbours in one rich continent.


However, for those British politicians and voters who favour leaving the EU after our now 45 years of membership, the big prize is the ability outside the EU to set our own rules rather than following the EU consensus. In terms of public policy, this translates into a desire by right-wing forces to pursue greater market fundamentalism through trade liberalisation and deregulation, and by a desire of some left-wing forces to use public subsidies to favour national industries.


Truly, there is no logical or pragmatic resolution of these twin complexities: if the need is to have common rules in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland so as to avoid conflict then Britain cannot simultaneously use Brexit to become a radically deregulated, free trade, market fundamentalist nation, or a subsidised, socialist nation. That is why we pragmatic British have failed to solve our own puzzle since our referendum in 2016.


What will happen now? Most likely, some continued chaos and delay. In the end, this can be resolved only by Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining Ireland, which could occur through a referendum in both countries, or by Britain choosing to remain so close to the EU that it continues to abide by EU rules governing commerce.


The big danger now is of long-term damage to the political relationships between Britain and its European neighbours. For above the Brexit chaos is one further, arguably greater reality: that we Europeans all face common threats from the world’s rather unpredictable and often unfriendly superpowers. We need each other. That is why my personal bet is on Britain opting to stay very close to the EU, even as a non-member. That, after all, must be the pragmatic solution.