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Opinion Op Ed 24 Mar 2017 UK heads for a rende ...
The writer is a lawyer and a keen observer of European affairs, and works in the UK and France

UK heads for a rendezvous with reality

Published Mar 24, 2017, 12:42 am IST
Updated Mar 24, 2017, 6:58 am IST
Brexiter rhetoric seems to have given licence to the nastiest elements in British society.
Prime Minister Theresa May
 Prime Minister Theresa May

On March 14, the British Parliament passed the bill that gave Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May the authority to notify the EU of the UK’s intention to leave. She proposes to do so by March 29. At that point a new chapter in the unreal story of the UK’s departure from the European Union will open. The tale begins on June 23, with the narrow victory of the “Leave” campaign in the referendum, a mere 51.9 per cent. As the result was declared it became clear that those campaigning to leave, the “Brexiters”, had not expected to win. And despite their campaign slogans that all would be well, it also became clear that the Brexiters had no clue what would happen next. Those in the “Remain” camp believed that even though they had lost, their views would be respected and the UK would keep a close relationship with Europe. How wrong they were. “In victory, magnanimity”: a sentiment which has apparently been completely forgotten by Brexiters. Any suggestion that their mandate is slim is met with abuse and aggression: how dare the “Remoaners” — the puerile Brexiter term for “Remain” supporters — question “the will of the people”? What the Brexiters forget is that Remain voters are also “the people”; and anyway the notion of “a people” is dubious. The UK is — for the moment — a union of four nations. And of those nations, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain, Northern Ireland did so by a healthy majority, as did the Welsh in Wales.

The Brexiters have also shown themselves quite prepared to ride roughshod over legality. Shortly after the referendum the Brexiters claimed they did not need Parliament’s consent to withdraw the UK from the EU, notwithstanding that the referendum was only advisory. Ms Gina Miller began legal proceedings, claiming that parliamentary consent was necessary for the start of the withdrawal process. She has been subjected to death threats and to vilification in Brexiter newspapers. The irony of a British citizen, seeking to uphold British law, in a British court, so that the British Parliament may exercise its rightful function, being abused in this way was clearly lost on them. Rightly the Supreme Court upheld Ms Miller’s claim, but not before the Brexiter press — in terms redolent of Nazi Germany — accused the judges of being “enemies of the people”. What all this snarling and sneering points to is that the Brexiters cannot admit to themselves their referendum campaign was mendacious, their mandate is slim and their plans perilous. But while political discourse has been coarsened, social discourse has been poisoned. Brexiter rhetoric seems to have given licence to the nastiest elements in British society. Since the referendum there has been a sharp uptick in incidents of racial abuse and racially motivated assaults. Polish schoolchildren have been called “vermin”; Polish cultural centres have been sprayed with vile graffiti; there have been even been fatal stabbings. There has been an increase in abuse and attacks on non-European immigrants too.

 

Meanwhile, the debate on the UK’s future relationship with the EU has shifted from the pragmatic to the dogmatic. During the referendum campaign moderate Brexiters suggested that even if the UK left the EU it would remain in the European single market and the European customs union. After the result Remainers hoped that though the UK would no longer have a say in the operation of those arrangements, so vital to national prosperity, at least the UK would remain part of them. The elevation to the premiership of Ms May, a Remainer though not a vocal one, gave comfort. Ms May has, however, proven to be a disappointment at best, and a disaster at worst. She has placed party unity above the national interest and abandoned common sense and decency. Under pressure from extreme Brexiters in her party who want a “hard Brexit” — a complete break with the EU — she has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK, denied that Parliament should vote on the final deal and abandoned the aim of remaining within the single market. This last retreat is said to be necessary because single market membership requires the UK to accept the free movement of people within Europe. She appears to have accepted the Brexiters’ spurious claim that free movement is what “the people” wanted, above all, to end. There is absolutely no basis for this. Generally those areas of the country with high levels of immigration voted to remain, most prominently London. The fact that the economy depends heavily on immigration from the EU has also been conveniently forgotten.

Rather than seek to persuade the EU to grant a trade deal with modified freedom of movement, Ms May has resorted to bluster and threats: “no deal is better than a bad deal”; the UK will become a tax haven and siphon off investment from Europe; the UK will do trade deals with the US and the Commonwealth and cut out the EU. The continental Europeans do not believe Ms May and have good reason not to. Her attempt during November to secure a trade deal with India was a signal failure. Her visit in January to President Donald Trump was not a success. Then, the day after the withdrawal bill was passed, David Davis, the Cabinet minister in charge of withdrawal, admitted there is no plan for coping with the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. Ms May’s rhetoric therefore, rather than making the continentals quake in their shoes, has annoyed them. It has also made her look ridiculous. Into this mix Ms Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish government, has thrown a demand for an independence referendum on the ground that the Scots never voted for a “hard Brexit”. The demand is entirely justified, though that has not stopped Ms May from refusing it; a refusal that plays directly into Ms Sturgeon’s hands. When Ms May sends her notification letter next week reports suggest that the EU will demand she recognise the UK cannot renege on financial commitments it signed up to whilst a member. An amount of some 60 billion euros is mentioned. Whatever it is, a figure will have to be agreed and the account settled. How the hard Brexiters Ms May seems to wish to placate will react to the EU’s demand we do not know; with screams and tantrums probably. So, lacking imagination, courage and charm, Ms May is about to embark on negotiations without a proper plan, where goodwill is almost totally dissipated, and the end result of which could be national ruination, exclusion from Europe and a breakup of the United Kingdom. Let’s hope that reality dawns soon.

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