May Day!, May Day! “Brexit” no longer (necessarily) “means Brexit.”
THERESA MAY, THE BELEAGUERED PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM, embarked on a frantic round of European diplomacy in another final attempt to salvage her government’s Brexit deal. She left for the continent after bottling out of the scheduled and much lambasted “meaningful vote” on the deal. Lest it be forgotten, this deal is more of a UK-EU memorandum agreeing to the indefinite deferral of the actual Brexit agreement which is the fruit of two year’s worth of negotiations and millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money. It was still nevertheless widely derided and at least 150 of her own MPs were implacably opposed to it (there are a total of 315 Conservative MPs, 257 Labour MPs and, 78 more who are either independent of represent other parties).
Mrs May had instructed Cabinet Ministers to make clear to the media that there would be no chance whatsoever of this critical—accept it or face Armageddon—vote being delayed. So, on the morning of the 10th, Ministers were saying the vote would proceed come what may, but, by lunchtime, the script has suddenly changed. Mrs May formally postponed it, telling MPs it was clear that their concern about the Irish backstop proposals would have resulted in it being rejected “by a significant margin.” Incandescent MPs from all parties pointed out that the significant margin of dissent was there from the outset.
As a consequence, the pound (GBP £) fell sharply, as did the London Stock Market (The FTSE 250, which mostly trades businesses operating in the UK, lost almost 2% of its value). City analysts doubt either will recover much over the Christmas period as Mrs May now refuses to say when the meaningful vote is to be rescheduled for. What is crystal clear however was Europe’s response. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, immediately Tweeted that as far as his side was concerned, there would be no more negotiation. As one radio show host pointed out, “the UK, despite being in the EU, is able to keep its cherished pound coin and not sign up to the Schengen agreement so, already has considerable sovereignty.” And so it was, May returned from Germany where Angela Merkel made emphatically clear that the deal was the best the British would be getting and that cherry-picking and politicking remained firmly off of the menu.
On the 11th, the day Westminster should have been voting, the mood was, as the BBC repeatedly told its viewers, “febrile.” On the 12th, around 50 Conservative MPs called for a vote of no confidence in their PM. Not to be deterred by such seismic happenings, TV anchors and pundits were vigorously speculating over “No Brexit” (retract the divorce papers and work on the marriage) versus “No Deal Brexit” (forget the formal divorce and just run away from the marriage). The debate became most confused and heated when the backstop issue was raised; the public were now demanding to know what exactly the backstop proposal entailed.
Fathoming the Irish Backstop
It is evident from the campaign footage and media coverage that those who wanted Brexit—by hook or by crook—did not spend much time concerning themselves about the Irish border. According to the author, Ishaan Tharoor, this highlights a colonial mentality that still pervades parts of the British establishment (i.e., taking Ireland and the Irish for granted). Far more emotive and easy to articulate was for the Brexiteers to campaign for the right to overfish British waters unfettered and to put a stop to the largely non-existent ‘hoards’ of Middle Eastern migrants seeking to enter the UK.
In essence, the backstop proposal offers both Ireland and the EU an assurance that Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will remain tied to EU customs union and common market rules and regulations until the UK and the EU can jointly agree a final Brexit deal.
Unionists in Northern Ireland do not want London to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK thus, Brexit would possibly require a hard boarder between the north and the south of the island. This constituent are supported by hard Brexiteers who are implacably opposed to the backstop as they see it as a way for the UK to say in the EU indefinitely (recall that Theresa May did vote to remain).
Nationalists in Northern Ireland demand that London retains the open border with the rest of Ireland. Thus, leaving the common market is not a realistic option at any future point in time. (recall that the citizens of Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain: 55.8% wanted to stay as in the EU).
Its 2018, not 1820
Northern Ireland is categorically a legacy of England’s former imperial control over the island of Ireland. But Brexit shows also how British former glory fuels contemporary notions of exceptionalism. There is a clear nostalgia for the past, a past which when popularly portrayed glosses over the bad and the ugly of the Empire and cherry picks the good bits. This rose-tinted perspective of the past, according to the scholar Nadine El-Enany, “has long fed the UK’s discontent at being an equal alongside other EU countries, rather than it being the first among equals.”
In fairness and to give historical perspective, it was Britain that instigated capitalism, industrialisation and travel by rail. Indeed, according to the historian Tom Leyland, the UK also bestowed English as the global lingua franca alongside the blueprints for the institutions that facilitate modernity, which the vast majority of countries have adopted lock, stock and barrel.
As the writer Gary Younge points out, Britain’s colonial past still gives many the impression that, “the reason we are at the centre of most world maps is because the Earth revolves around us, not because it was us who drew the maps.” Yet, post the Brexit referendum, the UK government is finding out how little sovereignty means for a country the size of Britain in todays globalised neoliberal world.
The idea that the UK will find it easy is to forge free-trade agreements with its former colonies or, any other country for that matter, is fanciful according to Indian author, Bhanuj Kappal. “Commonwealth countries may have forgiven, but they certainly have not forgotten past atrocities and economic exploitation.” Few, if any, of the 50 plus so-called Commonwealth countries will voluntarily sign up to the imbalanced trade deals with the UK that there were once force to adhere to.
Indeed, there is ample evidence that these countries will seek to strengthen their ties with the world’s second-largest economy, the European Union ($17.2tn) rather than chance tact and focus primarily with that of the UK (5th at $2.6tn). As the Financial Times recently made clear, 32 of these countries (mainly in Africa and the Caribbean) are already covered by free-trade agreements with the EU. Thus, they already enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the EU, including the UK, “for nearly all of their goods.”
The EU is India’s largest trading partner, accounting for 13.5% of India’s global trade. By contrast, the UK accounts for only 3.4% of exports and less that 2% of imports. It’s true that Indian companies “invest more in the UK than anywhere else in Europe,” but the objective reality that underlines this relationship is, according to tycoon Lord Bilimoria, that “they see it as being a bridge to the EU.” Thus the UK’s continued EU membership is key to this relationship.
Imagine for a moment Britain as a Bulldog chasing after the postman’s bike. The dog gets hold of the bike—bully for him—but soon realised that he’s unable to ride it and even if he could, he’d have no idea were to ride it to. Brexiteers assumed they could dictate the terms, the omnishambles being played out since the summer of 2016, demonstrates that they cannot.