John Bull’s little island

July 18,2016

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The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.

Like lemmings the British have hurtled over the precipice into an economic and political abyss by voting to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum.

The immediate fallout was the resignation of PM David Cameron but his successor, Theresa May, who barely three weeks earlier was all for remaining in the EU, suddenly changed her stance. It did not matter to her that more than four million people had signed a petition demanding a re-run of the vote.

Within hours of being formally declared the leader of the Conservative Party and even before assuming the office of prime minister, she thoughtlessly announced: “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it. There will be no attempt to remain inside the EU. No attempt to re-join it by the backdoor. No second referendum…as prime minister, I will make sure we leave the European Union.”

The new prime minister would surely recall that in the 1960s, Britain was frantically banging on the doors of Europe but was denied entry by the French. The frustration and anger this generated was reflected in Antony Jay’s ‘Hymn of hate’ in The Spectator of London on December 1, 1967: “You gave the world the guillotine; but still we don’t know why the heck, you had to drop it on our neck! We’re glad of what we did to you at Agincourt and Waterloo; and now the Franco-Prussian war is something we are strongly for.”

Antony Jay, who in the 1980s co-authored the hugely successful political comedies ‘Yes Minster’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister,’ wrote the poem a few days after president Charles De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into what was then known as the European Economic Community (EEC) for the second time in four years.

On the first occasion on January 14,1963 the French president had contemptuously declared: “L’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose” (England is not much any more). This was his way of saying that the British Empire along with its pretentious pomp and glory had withered away and all that remained was the shrivelled John Bull’s little island – an early eighteenth century personification of the United Kingdom.

De Gaulle feared that British membership of the EEC would trigger an unstoppable increase in American influence in Europe. It was the same fear that prompted him in 1966 to withdraw France from Nato’s integrated command and to close down US basses on French soil.

On April 28, 1969 De Gaulle unexpectedly resigned and this provided London the opportunity it had been waiting for. But it was not till 1973 – ten years after the first French veto – that it entered the European community along with Ireland and Denmark.

When ministers from France, Italy, West Germany and the three Benelux countries signed the Treaty of Paris on April 18, 1951 to establish Coal and Steel Community, they could not have imagined that it would transform into the European Economic Community under the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and then burgeon into the European Union in 1993. Thus a unique supranational form of government was established.

The June 23 referendum is a replay of recent British history. As early as 1975, barely two years after the country’s entry into the EEC, the then prime minister Harold Wilson decided to go for a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European community. The wisdom of remaining was never in doubt and the British prime minister’s utterly plebeian motive for the plebiscite was merely to unite the disparate factions of his Labour Party.

In the 1975 referendum the question posed to voters was “Do you think the United Kingdom should remain in the European community (the Common Market).” The response was a resounding ‘yes’ in both England and Scotland.

In contrast, this year the UK decided to leave the EU by a margin of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent but Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain, as did Northern Ireland. This has unleashed a speculative tsunami that the two regions could sever their links with the UK.

It is absurdly ironic that during the referendum on Scotland’s independence barely two years ago, English politicians had warned the Scots that should they opt out of the UK, it would, ipso facto, end Scotland’s membership of the EU. The outcome was that a convincing 55. 30 percent decided to remain.

The situation is now entirely different as is evident from the statement of Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon on June 26: “The context and the circumstances have changed dramatically. The UK that Scotland voted to remain within in 2014 doesn’t exist anymore…We face the prospect of being taken out of the European Union against our will.”

Three days later, she rushed to Brussels to present Scotland’s case and was given a polite hearing by most, but not all, of her interlocutors. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain was uncharacteristically blunt: “Scotland does not have the competence to negotiate with the European Union. If the United Kingdom leaves…Scotland leaves.”

But if change is the law of life, it is impossible to predict what the stance of the EU will be in the months to come. The writing on the wall is that Scotland may eventually opt for independence and this is corroborated by the latest polls which show that between 55 to 59 percent of Scots would vote to sever ties with England. John Bull’s little island could become even smaller.

In Northern Ireland, the leading nationalist party Sinn Fein proposed a referendum for reunification with the south. Although this has been ignored by both London and Dublin, a far more serious issue was highlighted by The Economist, “Another shamefully overlooked snag is that Britain’s exit from Europe will break the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, in which Northern Ireland’s peace process was underpinned by the EU. This treaty has kept the peace in the UK’s most troubled region for nearly 20 years. Fixing the mess will be an urgent task for the prime minister.”

Formidable challenges lie ahead for Prime Minister Theresa May. Negotiations for leaving the EU will have to be initiated under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. This consists of a mere 261 words, and, even worse, it does not give a vote to the seceding state on the final terms of departure.

Britain’s trade relationship with the EU will have to be separately negotiated within two years as stipulated in Article 50. If this deadline is not met WTO rules will apply. This will entail tariffs and no special arrangements for services. Almost half of the UK’s exports go to Europe and this makes the negotiations on a trade agreement pivotal.

Experts are convinced that under the circumstances the most feasible arrangement is the one granted by the EU to the European Free Trade Association (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). In return for access to the ‘single market’, members of the group make hefty contributions to the EU budget and are obliged to accept its bedrock principle of free movement of labour – the very issues that prompted the British leave vote.

In effect, this amounts to a humiliating commitment to abide by all the EU regulations without having a corresponding right to frame these rules. The silver lining is that such a settlement offers the best chance of preventing the secession of Northern Ireland and Scotland.



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