I’ve been considering whether to write about Brexit. So much to say in one sense, but so little to comment on in terms of actual developments, 9 months in. There have at least been a succession of empty sound bites from government, added to this week by a truly messy BBC Question Time Brexit special (which UK viewers can watch on iPlayer, here)… it’s enough to make you pull your hair out.
But it would be remiss of me to ignore the debate today: the day that the UK signs ‘Article 50’. A chance, I’m sure, for nationalists patriots to mark with fervour, with a blurry idea of what it is they’re actually celebrating – not entirely their fault, given the opacity of how Brexit is progressing on a governmental level. The more fringe quarters of the rightwing press are crowing about ‘our’ very own ‘Independence Day’. It is dubbed, somewhat clumsily, ‘E-day‘ (all your trigger warnings come at once: it’s a Daily Mail link). I mean, I quip about fringe quarters of the press, but The Daily Mail is the UK’s most-read newspaper with circulation figures of 2 million, making it the 4th-most read English language newspaper in the world. Lovely.
‘Taking back control’
It is at least true that signing Article 50 will trigger the extrication of the UK from the European Union. But this triggering is not really a ‘breaking free’ in any significant sense. In fact it is more like the reverse of a ‘taking back control’ promised to the electorate. It is a capitulation of British interests, money and co-operative policy structures built over half a century, in a ham-fisted attempt to assuage a misguided postcolonial crisis of identity. *Breathes deeply*. Take what you can from the humour of the BBC show; there’s nothing funny about our real Little Britain. Article 50 represents the start, not the end, of an interminably long political negotiation to decide how European trade and movement will work in the future. According to Whitehall policy staff, there are 700 separate areas to disentangle. It’s like a large-scale divorce: only in this divorce, there is little precedent for what should happen, and an awful lot at stake for people outside the marriage itself.
As for what the relationship between Britain and the EU will look like in the future, that will remain unclear for longer still: the first negotiations will only be able to deal with Britain’s actual departure. Britain has been told by the EU it has outstanding financial commitments of around €60 billion to pay. We don’t seem to be in a particularly strong position to argue against that, seeing as our ‘side’ still needs to secure future lucrative trade deals with the bloc in the wake of, err, those trade deals we’re about to lose with our EU membership. Why would other European countries allow Britain the same or even similar access to their trade offering when Britain isn’t willing to abide by the tenets of EU membership? We can’t have our cake and eat it too, as Philip Hammond noted this morning. Contra bluster from British tabloids about our country’s refusal to bend to the will of European plutocrats (itself a claim with something of the echo chamber about it: MP’s expenses, anyone? Tory fraud scandal? House of Lords paid non-attendance?) David Davis has actually already admitted that yes, we will have to pay up. Brexit: so far, so messy.
That red bus
Paying €60 billion rather dwarfs the red bus brigade that claimed £350 million per week went into the EU. In fact, the latter figure has been disproven anyway, not least because of the value of reciprocal income. But €60 billion also pales into insignificance when you consider the £220 billion worth of exports alone we currently sell to EU countries every year, as well as the same – more, in fact – bought via our imports from EU countries. Those will be compromised when we lose unilateral trade agreements for at least the period of negotiations, if not longer. Sure, we can work through policy that tries to shore up some of this trade, as well as looking to other countries to stem the gulf – but that takes time and, surprise! – money. These are complicated and in all likelihood, protracted, negotiations that voters last summer were truly in the dark about: either because they didn’t think about it or they weren’t equipped with the information to do so effectively.
For those with buyer’s remorse, the £350 million saved per week can go to the NHS though, right? Apart from nothing’s come through yet. The claim is now abandoned by the very people who made it, and in real terms, NHS spending is actually down. Even where NHS spending may increase, adjusting for inflation shows that it won’t rise as much as suggested, and non-NHS health services face disproportionate cuts. ‘Leave’ voters should rightly be furious.
Us vs. Them
What was interesting about this week’s BBC Question Time Brexit special was not so much the political performances but the audience. Again and again, what people complained about/were worried about/made uninformed assumptions about… was immigration. In case we were in any doubt, Brexit was for many people a protest vote to reduce immigration. The fact that the EU is represents only half of inward movement of people to the UK is besides the point to these voters, who just want less of it and do not feel they are given opportunities to make that heard: and so they used our European membership referendum as their direct line.
On an economic basis, complaints about the drain of migrants have been repeatedly proven unfounded, as this excellent Movehub infographic shows (full version in link, albeit only measuring up to 2012). In fact, EU migrants are of greater benefit to the UK than non-EU migrants. They are mostly young, working, and paying taxes. But good luck countering feelings with facts. Until we listen to voters’ concerns and where they come from – whether emotionally or practically – they will not feel listened to. Through it all, Brexit is kicked jerkily into action despite its at-best tangential relevance to the issues that are really at stake for a disadvantaged electorate.
Political rhetoric, course 101
What now? Well, no-one really knows still. David Davis may bluster about the solid 9 months of work done by his department to set things up for disentangling itself from the EU (incidentally, the department is rather refreshingly titled ‘The Department for Exiting the European Union’ – no acronyms here, pals). But a smooth ride hardly seems likely given the myriad aspects needing consideration, from economics and trade to constitutions, binding and non-binding policy regulation. Think of the headache involved in deciding the rights that should be afforded to EU nationals currently resident in the UK, and Brits abroad.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: this whole Brexit scenario was an avoidable crisis, manufactured and stoked by egotistical politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson who enjoyed their soapbox without having to take ultimate responsibility. It will swallow money, human resources and focus from other crucially important issues that do need political action and do deserve the focus of British voters. There’s plenty wrong with the EU, but the union has stepped up its efforts to better rationalise processes in the interests of cost-saving and efficiency. It seems to me far better to be part of an like-minded, established bloc with half a century of experience than going it alone in a global age of economic uncertainty, compounded by shifting geopolitical allegiances that threaten civil unrest at any time.
Sure, at times we have invested more into the EU than we were getting out; but such disproportionate political grandstanding to exit a union that has done a lot of good seems all the more surreal when you consider the £31 billion we are paying to renew Trident. Let’s call it what it is – a nuclear deterrent for a small country with dwindling impact on the world stage. Using the euphemism of ‘Trident’ lets us get away without consideration of what nuclear armament, with all its consequences, really means. Still: might come in useful in a future where our European allies are rather colder in their diplomatic collateral.
What I’m saying is: I know we’re supposed to get behind these political machinations now. I know that ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ (but what, exactly, is Brexit?). I know that there will be unenviable work done by incredibly dedicated civil servants here and on the continent to hammer out a mutually beneficial (or mutually palatable) contract over several years. But as an ideological exercise, it remains a misguided, manipulative endeavour and a case study for Political Rhetoric 101. A GCSE history class could pick apart the political motivations for rolling out Brexit at a time of hardening social attitudes, rising nationalism, structural inequality and enforced (and demonstrably ineffective) austerity measures.
In 10 years, when we see an arms-length Europe and a privatised NHS, I don’t think school classes will have any problem in linking the patterns together to show how a perfect storm of misplaced patriotism and lies came together to exacerbate both.