If anything has emerged from the separation process from the EU among all the confusion and contradicting opinions, it is that despite the optimistic claims of many separatists, there seems to be a clear trade-off between national sovereignty and free trade when it comes to the EU.
To a lot of Britons, this is difficult to get one’s head around, largely because there is a serious difference of world view between Britain and the Continent. Over here, free trade is foremost an economic idea, resulting from the analyses by Adam Smith and others demonstrating the positive effects of it on prices and growth. Not to mention the ability of trade to put off conflict between great powers.
It is indeed in the interest of European states to practice free trade with each other, including those who are not in the EU, since the benefits of it for consumers is obvious and it is free of the dangers presented by free trade with developing countries in exposing European workers to unfair competition from underpaid and overworked labour. Economically-speaking free trade across the Channel is a good idea for everyone.
But the EU is not an economic construct; it is an ideological one. The goal of Brussels dignitaries is above all the EU itself, that is its ability to survive by stalling and discouraging centrifugal movements by offering its members privileges that are not available to others. Free trade is one of them. While here, it is seen as a tool for prosperity, in Brussels it is a bargaining chip for their ambition of melting Western Europe into a single state by denying it to those who refuse this project or do not agree to a vassal status – like Norway has.
A purely economic analysis has led many to suggest a free trade agreement with a UK having regained its sovereignty will not be difficult to achieve because it is in everyone’s economic interest; that is technically true, but if the EU was known for always pursuing economic interest, perhaps we would not be in this situation in the first place. The EU will pursue whichever policy it thinks will make an example of Britain to other countries with similar nationalist aspirations.
There are those, however, on the Continent, who do want to follow their interest to trade freely with the UK while respecting its sovereignty and preserving their own, as it was in the early years of the Union, when it was still just called the European Community. These are European nationalists, who indeed want Britain to succeed once independent, so they might advance their own plans for French independence, Spanish independence, Polish, etc. They are therefore the natural and most reliable allies of the UK Government in this business.
This brings us to the Government’s current “Brexit strategy”. What it is doing at the moment is embarrassing and discrediting the cause of free European nations with its insistence on walking the tight rope between trade and sovereignty rather than clearly pick a side and bear the consequences. It is now apparently headed towards a situation – at least during transition – under a Norwegian-like plan, of which David Davies could not seriously argue before the oversight committee that it was not a plan for being a vassal state. This can only be interpreted one way by voters on the Continent: leaving the EU is so dangerous that those who try it are prepared after a few months to give up anything to be readmitted to all its privileges.
What’s more, once it does happen, and Britain does not collapse in a ball of fire, none of its successes will be attributable to independence, because it will not have been independent; all the while its failures will, because EU decisions will be said to have been made without Britain in mind, since it will have left the table.
This course is sapping all energy and support from Britain’s only friends on the Continent, guaranteeing Britain’s isolation in all future dealings with the EU.
When David Cameron resigned, he was right to believe that “Brexit required a Brexit government”. Leaving squarely and in order, though it would not be without its drawbacks – economic uncertainty, rising prices, etc. – could not be as bad as the genuine political isolation that results from this government’s hesitance.
This doesn’t even touch on the corollary issue created in Northern Ireland. This exit process reveals that despite the Good Friday Agreement, the core issue has not been resolved. As it happens, the Ulster conflict is a rather typical case of regional secessionism where the foreign-minded population cohabits with a staunchly unionist population between whom the government is caught, similar to the American War of Independence or the Algerian War. Therefore, though the power-sharing arrangement of 1998 can pacify relations by including Sinn Fein in the official system and thus pull them away from violence, there is no real reason why it would resolve the underlying problem of competing loyalties on a single territory. That point has been appeased seamlessly by the UK and Ireland simultaneously giving up a lot of their authority – in Northern Ireland and elsewhere – to a single power in Brussels. This made moot the question of belonging to one side or the other, since they were both ultimately on the same side in the context of the EU. This is symbolised plainly by the non-border between Belfast and Dublin. Now this question is not moot anymore.
We shouldn’t be surprised as something exactly similar happened in Eastern Europe a few years ago as the Russian populations of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, which had been formally part of Ukraine, suddenly rebelled against Kiev to defend their Russian-ness when the government adopted a clear policy of separation from Russia. They had previously been kept satisfied knowing that both were part of the same country, first in the context of the Soviet Union, then with Ukraine governed by a Russian stooge. There was even an overarching fracture between pan-Europeanism and nationalism acting on the conflict, like there is in Ireland.
Handling the Irish situation again requires bold government action. In this case, the only option for a government that wants to retain Northern Ireland within the Kingdom is to assert its authority while allowing both sides to be involved. As I have explained in another piece, Britain is one of those countries for which national solidarity is not based on a common ethnicity, but on a shared destiny created by a common rule. This is the direct rule that the DUP has been calling for recently.
Yet, this opens back up the threat of war. This is why implementing direct rule over Belfast immediately and completely would be dangerous and surely a certain amount of autonomy should be maintained in Stormont so the clauses of the Good Friday Treaty can still be applied and Sinn Fein kept within the official establishment, but nor should the UK government accept reducing its authority there even more.
When it comes to the border issue itself, it is understandable that Theresa May would want to avoid putting infrastructure there, but sooner or later it will not be avoided that regulatory independence for the UK and a non-border are incompatible. It is good on May to propose solution but, to take one example, exempting small businesses which represent 80% of bilateral trade is something the EU is not about to accept (as pointed out by Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister), since that is barely different from having no customs. Ultimately the government will need to put down checks at the crossing – even if they are relatively less cumbersome technological devices – and trust that Republican leaders, many of whom have a violent past, will be more wary of reopening the armed conflict, that and that with time the border situation will become standard.
There is the same hope for the same national integration – therefore indefinite peace – in Ireland as has existed everywhere else in Great Britain by the same process. However, for that, leaders in Westminster cannot be mired in compromise with Brussels, which on the Irish issue acts as a relay and amplifier of Dublin’s demands, which are of course contrary to this course of action.
Though there is a lot to dread about leaving the EU, the thing of which to be most afraid in this case, to paraphrase Roosevelt, is fear itself, and the weak independence that comes from it.