Bri­tain en­ters the un­known

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - CHRIS PAT­TEN

Ahis­tory teacher at my school be­lieved that ev­ery great event in the past should be ap­proached on the ba­sis of a tri­par­tite anal­y­sis of its causes, pre­texts, and re­sults. He would list these in col­umns on the black­board, and we would then have to learn them by heart: the causes of the 18th-cen­tury War of the Span­ish Suc­ces­sion, the pre­texts for the French Revo­lu­tion, the re­sults of the Amer­i­can War of In­de­pen­dence, and so on.

Of course, life and fur­ther study teach us that things are not that sim­ple. Causes can be a com­bi­na­tion of ac­ci­dent, am­bi­tion, and co­in­ci­dence, to­gether with more pro­found eco­nomic, so­cial, and tech­no­log­i­cal changes. Re­sults can be equally dif­fi­cult to gauge neatly. Af­ter all, his­tory rarely brings clo­sure, and it is hard to know when the ef­fects of a great event be­gin and end.

In that re­gard, the United King­dom’s de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union at 23:00 GMT on Jan. 31 is prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant na­tional po­lit­i­cal event in my life­time. En­thu­si­as­tic Brex­i­teers are fu­ri­ous that Big Ben, the West­min­ster Par­lia­ment’s iconic clock, can­not sound to mark this event be­cause of long-over­due re­pairs. They act as though this were yet an­other griev­ance to add to the long list that has sus­tained their cam­paign.

But what are we sup­posed to be cel­e­brat­ing? No one seems to know what comes next. The fu­ture is shrouded in waf­fle, wish­ful think­ing, and the sort of men­dac­ity that these days ap­pears to ex­act no po­lit­i­cal price.

For starters, Brex­i­teers air­ily dis­miss the ques­tion of costs. Bloomberg Eco­nom­ics re­cently es­ti­mated that Brexit has al­ready cost the U.K. econ­omy £130 bil­lion ($169 bil­lion) since the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, with the coun­try set to be a fur­ther £70 bil­lion poorer by the time its tran­si­tion pe­riod ends on Dec. 31. Other cred­i­ble sources have pro­duced sim­i­lar fig­ures.

But why be­lieve any­thing that con­tra­dicts the quasi-reli­gious fer­vor of Brexit Bri­tain? Brex­i­teers re­gard any un­wel­come eco­nomic es­ti­mate as an at­tempt to talk the coun­try down. In any case, they in­sist, what­ever the cost, we have got our free­dom back. We have taken back con­trol.

But what pre­cisely does that mean? Ac­cord­ing to Bri­tain’s Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer, Sa­jid Javid, the U.K. will avoid align­ing it­self with EU reg­u­la­tions when it leaves the bloc. In­stead of be­ing a rule-taker in the sin­gle mar­ket or cus­toms union, it will be a rule-maker. But back in 2016, when he was busi­ness min­is­ter, Javid sang a dif­fer­ent tune, ar­gu­ing that Bri­tain would face “a decade of stag­na­tion and doubt” if it left the EU. So, af­ter Brexit, per­haps we will be tak­ing con­trol of a new nar­ra­tive that de­nies what we have pre­vi­ously thought and ar­gued.

We are also ap­par­ently go­ing to be able to prom­ise one thing in Brus­sels and an­other in Belfast. Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son’s di­vorce set­tle­ment with the EU em­braced a deal ex­plic­itly re­jected by him in the past and ruled out by his pre­de­ces­sor, Theresa May, be­cause it ap­pears to split the U.K. down the mid­dle of the Ir­ish Sea. Un­til the U.K. has agreed a fu­ture trade deal with the EU, North­ern Ire­land will in ef­fect re­main in the bloc’s cus­toms union and will have to ap­ply checks on goods mov­ing be­tween its own ports and the rest of the U.K.

EU of­fi­cials say there can be no back­slid­ing, but John­son back­slides all the same. North­ern Ire­land can, he tells peo­ple there, be both in and out­side the cus­toms union. The early Chris­tian church used to ar­gue about some­thing called con­sub­stan­tial­ity when de­bat­ing the na­ture of a three-in-one God. Per­haps this is what Brex­i­teers have in mind. North­ern Ire­land will be both in and out at the same time: a true mir­a­cle.

And will the trade deal that the U.K. ne­go­ti­ates with its largest mar­ket be a close or dis­tant set of ar­range­ments? Only two things are clear. First, we won’t be able to agree any­thing broad, de­tailed, and so­phis­ti­cated by the end of 2020, when John­son wants the deal com­pleted. Sec­ond, greater ac­cess will come at the cost of closer align­ment with EU rules. There is no get­ting around that fact.

It re­mains to be seen whether any of this will mat­ter, and whether the Con­ser­va­tive Party, which now owns Brexit lock, stock, and bar­rel, will even­tu­ally pay a po­lit­i­cal price. Or per­haps such con­cerns will even be for­got­ten as we con­front two far big­ger threats in the cen­tury ahead.

The first of these is cli­mate change, and the as­so­ci­ated strug­gle to get world lead­ers to join to­gether in tak­ing it se­ri­ously. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump says that talk of global warm­ing is just doom­mon­ger­ing, and most of his fel­low Repub­li­cans ap­pear to agree. More­over, lead­ers in Brazil, Aus­tralia, and other coun­tries shel­ter be­hind Trump’s sci­ence de­fy­ing prej­u­dices, even as tem­per­a­tures and sea lev­els rise and fires rage. What­ever the ef­fects of Brexit may be, some of the con­se­quences of cli­mate change are al­ready ap­par­ent.

Sec­ond, Bri­tain will be cel­e­brat­ing its glo­ri­ous in­de­pen­dence from the com­pli­ca­tions of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion at a time when the in­tel­lec­tual, po­lit­i­cal, and eco­nomic hos­til­ity be­tween China’s com­mu­nist lead­er­ship and lib­eral democ­ra­cies is be­com­ing ever clearer. If lib­eral democ­racy is to sur­vive, it must stand up for it­self. And we should be un­der no il­lu­sion: open so­ci­eties un­der the rule of law, from the Amer­i­cas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hos­tile sights. The West should not aim to en­cir­cle or pen in China. But lib­eral democ­ra­cies can­not al­low it to dis­tort in­ter­na­tional norms in its own fa­vor.

Com­pared to these huge chal­lenges, the con­se­quences of Brexit may seem far less sig­nif­i­cant. But the U.K. has cho­sen an odd and dan­ger­ous time to de­cide to go it alone.

Brex­i­teers in­sist, what­ever the cost, we have got our free­dom back

Chris Pat­ten, the last Bri­tish gov­er­nor of Hong Kong and a for­mer EU com­mis­sioner for ex­ter­nal af­fairs, is Chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.pro­ject­syn­di­cate.org).

A mem­ber of pro­to­col re­moves the Union flag from the atrium of the Europa build­ing in Brus­sels.

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