Saturday, April 1, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 1, 2017

Brexit launched After 44 years of an often troubled relationship between the European Union (EU) and Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May launched her country’s bid on March 29, 2017 to be the first member of the 28-nation bloc to leave in its 60-year history by triggering Article 50 of the Rome Treaty. Whereas the European project was envisaged by its moving spirits France and Germany to prevent the conflicts that led to two world wars and give the Continent sufficient clout in world affairs, Britain’s late entry in 1973 and subsequent playing out of the relationship reflected the differing perspectives of London and Brussels. As it is, Britain’s entry was in any case no easy task. France’s then president Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed Britain’s entry in 1961 and 1967, seeing London’s bid as a ‘Trojan horse’ for US influence and doubting Britain’s European spirit. Until the 1960s, Britain appeared more committed to its special relationship with the US and the advantages it continued to enjoy from its remaining empire. However, economic difficulties and the further shrinking of colonial possessions persuaded Britain to apply to catch up with France and Germany’s higher economic growth. Whereas economic advantage remained Britain’s primary focus throughout its membership of the EU, the political integration project found few takers across the Channel. In fact, anti-EU membership campaigners and dissidents have often castigated the EU headquarters Brussels as a distant, unelected, bureaucratic ‘super state’ that erodes Britain’s independence. The Brexit campaign may have been focused on preventing free movement of people throughout the EU and Britain to check immigration, but what the pro-European campaign signally failed to do was point out the vast subsidies and grants provided by the EU, although such provision went straight into the public services. The immigration issue may have trumped the considerable considerations of the advantages derived by Britain from membership, such as becoming the dominant hub for the aviation, pharmaceuticals and finance industries amongst others, but even on the touchstone of the ‘transactional’ approach long adopted by London, the referendum to leave did not frame the issues clearly and objectively, leading Britain as a whole into sleepwalking into an own goal. While the two-year negotiation process promises to be a hard slog, given the wide range of issues to be settled, the EU and its leading members are adopting a tough stance to ensure that the pain of departure discourages other EU members from contemplating a similar course. The biggest losses to Britain will be free access to the EU market, Britain’s biggest export destination, and the concomitant shifting of banks and industries ton the Continent to retain their access to the common market. London’s position as the favoured financial, banking, and many industries’ hub will likely unravel if the noises coming out of these sectors are any indication. For a country like Britain, the world’s oldest democracy enjoying an educated and articulate public opinion to be so deluded about the pros and cons of leaving the EU simply shows that previous prime minister David Cameron seriously underestimated the Leave campaign’s appeal for the British traditional ‘island mentality’. But it would not be fair to blame all Britons for this faux pas. Scotland is demanding another independence referendum because it does not want its wagon hitched to a Britain leaving the EU. The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to its south presents another headache, since if free movement across that border is not maintained, it could threaten the peace process and reinforce emerging calls for a Northern Ireland referendum to join the Irish Republic. Whether the break up of the UK will be one of the catastrophic consequences of an almost unthinking 52 percent vote for Brexit only time and the London-Brussels negotiations will reveal. But even if that does not happen, the cleavages will not be confined to the cross-Channel divide but will reveal themselves in the internal divisiveness in Britain that Brexit has triggered with a vengeance.

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