The New European - - Expertise -

Some 62 years ago this month, the for­eign pol­icy dis­as­ter with which Brexit is most of­ten com­pared ended in ig­no­min­ious fail­ure. Suez and the cur­rent cri­sis can both be said to be hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ences in terms of na­tional pride and pres­tige, but the 1956 col­li­sion of hubris and re­al­ity hinged on only one mis­judge­ment, rather than the many that led to to­day’s de­ba­cle.

Back then, an An­glo-french in­va­sion of the Suez Canal to safe­guard strate­gic and fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests fol­low­ing Egypt’s na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the wa­ter­way was brought to an abrupt end by Wash­ing­ton.

The US ob­tained a United Na­tions res­o­lu­tion de­mand­ing a cease­fire; in­sisted that the IMF dis­con­tinue loans to Bri­tain un­less the in­va­sion was called off; and pre­pared to sell US govern­ment-owned bonds that were prop­ping up the pound. Hu­mil­i­ated, Bri­tain ceased mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions nine days af­ter they be­gan.

By con­trast, the UK’S tran­si­tion from glob­ally-re­spected, es­sen­tial Euro­pean power to a sit­u­a­tion where its prime min­is­ter has 20 min­utes to plead for a deal with the EU over din­ner, has seem­ingly no end in sight.

So lit­tle has changed since the 2016 ref­er­en­dum that Sir Ivan Rogers, for­merly the UK’S per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the EU, pre­dicted re­cently that in two years’ time “we shall still be hav­ing the ex­act same de­bate over sovereignty/con­trol ver­sus mar­ket ac­cess”.

Yet the UK’S ap­proach to ne­go­ti­a­tions to date is merely the lat­est mis-step in a se­ries.

Re­cently, Danny Alexan­der, chief sec­re­tary to the Trea­sury in the Coali­tion years, claimed that he, the deputy prime min­is­ter and the chan­cel­lor at­tempted to dis­suade David Cameron from promis­ing a ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship. Cameron dis­missed their con­cerns, Alexan­der re­ports, ar­gu­ing that since the next gen­eral elec­tion would re­sult in an­other hung par­lia­ment, the Lib Dems could sim­ply veto the pledge as the price of a deal.

Such a cav­a­lier ap­proach to Bri­tain’s near half-cen­tury strate­gic re­la­tion­ship with Europe did re­turn suf­fi­cient num­bers of Ukip vot­ers to the Tory fold which, com­bined with a col­lapse in Lib Dem sup­port, pro­duced a slim over­all Tory ma­jor­ity – sad­dling the new govern­ment with this high stakes com­mit­ment.

Many other less risky paths were not taken.

Cameron em­barked upon a ‘rene­go­ti­a­tion’ of terms with the EU re­sult­ing in mi­nor changes, sub­se­quently im­plau­si­bly spun as sig­nif­i­cant dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum.

Yet ac­tual govern­ment pow­ers to ex­er­cise qual­i­fi­ca­tions to free move­ment went un­used.

The ref­er­en­dum’s rules in­creased the risk fac­tor.

The 1979 Scot­tish and Welsh Par­lia­ment plebiscites in­cluded a thresh­old of 40% of the en­tire elec­torate to ac­ti­vate their pro­vi­sions; the 2014 Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum al­lowed 16 and 17-year olds to vote; and in 2016 the govern­ment si­mul­ta­ne­ously sup­ported leg­is­la­tion to en­fran­chise ex-pats res­i­dent out­side the UK for more than 15 years.

But in a rush to leg­is­late and hold the ref­er­en­dum, no such pro­vi­sions were in­cluded.

Beyond these tech­ni­cal­i­ties, the govern­ment failed to com­mu­ni­cate the ba­sics of the UK’S con­sti­tu­tion. MPS were re­minded in an ac­com­pa­ny­ing House of Com­mons brief­ing paper that the Ref­er­en­dum Bill “does not con­tain any re­quire­ment for the UK govern­ment to im­ple­ment the re­sults of the ref­er­en­dum”. Vot­ers were not cau­tioned of this or that one par­lia­ment can­not bind an­other.

Fol­low­ing Cameron’s hasty de­par­ture the day af­ter the ref­er­en­dum, an op­por­tu­nity arose for his suc­ces­sor to heal the wounds of the nar­row, di­vi­sive vote.

In­stead, Theresa May took a hard-line ap­proach, rul­ing out par­tic­i­pa­tion in the sin­gle mar­ket or cus­toms union. The trig­ger­ing of Ar­ti­cle 50 then lim­ited the govern­ment’s ne­go­ti­at­ing flex­i­bil­ity. The ill-fated snap gen­eral elec­tion had the same self-de­feat­ing out­come.

As hubris met neme­sis, two years of try­ing to paper over in­ter­nal party di­vi­sions led to the Che­quers pro­posal to re­cast the EU’S in­ter­nal mar­ket and cus­toms union, which the EU pre­dictably re­jected in two days.

Now, af­ter suc­ces­sive wrong turns and su­per­fi­cial the­atrics when re­al­ity re­fused to bend to our wishes, the choices avail­able af­ter hav­ing pur­sued this folly are clear, al­though yet to fully sink in for many Brex­i­teers:

An eco­nom­i­cally-ru­inous no-deal; an al­most as dis­as­trous Canada-style free trade agree­ment that wouldn’t cover most of the UK’S econ­omy, doesn’t al­low for fric­tion­less trade and re­quires a hard bor­der in Ire­land; or a ‘Nor­way plus cus­toms union’ ar­range­ment that would min­imise Brexit’s eco­nomic dam­age and pro­tect the Good Fri­day Agree­ment but means giv­ing up our seat in set­ting EU rules that the UK would be re­quired to fol­low.

Five years of reck­less Suez-style blun­ders, fu­elled by imag­ined in­vin­ci­bil­ity, mean Bri­tain risks a much-di­min­ished fu­ture, mak­ing a fi­nal say on any deal with an op­tion to stay look en­tic­ing. Let’s choose our next step wisely.

On the an­niver­sary of Bri­tain’s last great in­ter­na­tional own goal, BARN­ABY TOWNS finds that the dam­age this time around is more se­vere

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.