Perhaps the timing of Brexit yesterday says as much as anything – at 11pm it represents a leap in the dark rather than any new dawn. A long time coming (1,317 days since the mid-2016 referendum, to be exact) but Brexit is finally a reality, ending almost half a century of British membership in the European Union, even if the rest of this year remains a transitional period. This length of time might well have mitigated the consequences until now since it fed doubts that Brexit could ever be more than wishful thinking, given such technical difficulties as unpicking almost 900 treaties – Britain has spent so long with one foot out of the EU that this seemed a new take on an old strategy. The EU has lost and then reversed referenda before and this one did not seem written in stone – flying in the face of a parliamentary democracy enshrined for centuries (which last year had to be suspended for its implementation), its results showed just 17 million voting to leave the EU out of an electorate of 46 million. But the referendum, which should never have been held, has finally proved irreversible.
No matter how much stress is laid on the primitive factors of populism, xenophobia and imperialist nostalgia underlying much of the Brexit vote, there can be no denying that there are valid criticisms aplenty to make of the European Union. But this should come as no surprise – the greater the scale of a historical development, the bigger the margin of error. The EU is big enough to contain its own contradictions, of which Britain has long been a leading example. The reduction of scale from this voluntary withdrawal from the world’s largest single market will have consequences which should not be minimised – instead of approaching China on a more or less equal footing, for example, Britain will now suffer a sixfold shrinkage in its negotiating position as accounting for 16 percent of the EU economy. The success stories of small and/or neutral countries outside the big blocs can always be argued but Britain is one of the five United Nations Security Council members, not Switzerland.
Brexiteers would seem aware of this gratuitous disadvantage because they have changed their tack on future alternatives outside the EU. The original argument was that by trading in the European for a global market, Britain could only expand but the pickings have been relatively lean over the last three years. Today the main hopes are pinned on a free-trade agreement with the United States – it is a paradox that Britain should go begging to the US because it resists the Eurocratic vision of turning the EU into an Old World version of the United States. It remains to be seen how advantageous this agreement will be with an unabashed protectionist like Donald Trump (with his eye said to be trained on Britain’s National Health Service) as very much the senior partner holding all the cards – perhaps less beneficial than the “special relationship” enjoyed with the US ever since Winston Churchill coined the phrase. Instead of gaining the world, the upshot of Brexit might well be to lose Scotland.
Yet if the global ambitions have been
pegged down in the last three years,
so for the most part has the aggression towards Europe (and also reciprocally) – the spirit of “leaving the
EU but not Europe” (as expressed by
London Mayor Zadiq Khan before,
during and since his blatantly pro-EU
fireworks display on New Year’s Eve)
is being echoed across the board, with
the exception of the lunatic fringe elements and outright xenophobes who
are sadly granted too much attention
in today’s modern media landscape.
Perhaps this tampering of rage was
the main ray of hope as midnight approached in London yesterday – but
is it always darkest before the dawn?