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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 01-02-2020 09:54

Farewell to the EU, but not to Europe

The decidedly conciliatory mood prevailing in the European Parliament, may have had something to do with the fact that, while Brexit has had a deleterious effect on British political life, its economic impact has so far been less damaging than predicted.

There were touching scenes in Brussels last week when, after over three years of ill-tempered wrangling, members of the European Parliament finally made official the departure of the United Kingdom. Some wept, others joined hands to give a cosmopolitan rendering of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ and there were speeches extolling the role played by the British in Europe’s often horrendously violent affairs. With luck, this means that leaders on both sides of the Channel will make an effort to ensure that, despite ceasing to belong to the European Union, the British will have no reason to see “the continent” as the lair of enemies who are out to do them down.

The decidedly conciliatory mood prevailing in the European Parliament, may have had something to do with the fact that, while Brexit has had a deleterious effect on British political life, its economic impact has so far been less damaging than predicted. To the evident disappointment of the many who assumed that leaving the European Union would immediately have dire consequences with banks, multinational companies and the like fleeing London to seek refuge elsewhere, by and large the UK economy is still performing rather better than those of Germany, France and Italy, though perhaps not so well as it would have had voters decided to remain.

For supporters of Brexit, this amounts to an unexpected bonus. While the desire to break free from the web being spun in Brussels by people obsessed with “ever closer union” had far less to do with money than with the feeling, justified or not, that “faceless bureaucrats,” answerable to nobody but themselves were determined to deprive the British of much they held dear, those who wanted the country to stay in the EU went on and on about the economic perils awaiting it should it be foolish enough to try and go it alone.

Some EU stalwarts, among them the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, still cling to the belief that, at some time in the future, the British will relent and ask to be readmitted to the club. For this to happen, the EU itself would have to change radically and revert to being the “economic community” it was back in January 1973 when, with the UK sinking ever deeper into the mire and fashionable futurologists predicting that by the time the next millennium dawned she would be worse off than Spain, Edward Heath’s government latched on to what was then a fairly loose association in which national differences were taken for granted and the “European project”, such as it was, was far less rigid and ideological than it would later become.

Indeed, had the people calling the shots in the EU taken a more flexible approach when David Cameron asked them for concessions he could use to persuade voters that the folk in Brussels did not aspire to micromanage absolutely everything from the shape of bananas to the number of watts vacuum cleaners could use, the referendum of June 2016 would probably have been won by those who wanted to remain in the bloc.

The Remainers lost the referendum in the UK, but they won the propaganda war they waged in the rest of the world, where the standard view now is that by voting to leave the EU, the British, most of them drunk on a heady mixture of imperial nostalgia, xenophobia, racism and populism, committed an act of crass folly for which they will pay a very high price. Those who think this way tend to take it for granted that the world belongs to the big battalions and countries which refuse to join one are liable to get trampled on by the mastodons. Is this really the case? In Europe itself, Norway and Switzerland have contrived to prosper outside the EU. Elsewhere, Australia, New Zealand and Canada may be demographically small, but have not found this much of a drawback. Neither should be a greater degree of independence for a middlesized country such as the UK.

While there still appeared to be a chance that the British establishment would somehow overturn the 2016 referendum by delaying its implementation and then forcing a second one so voters could come up with the correct answer, their friends in Brussels did their utmost to help them by making it clear they would try to punish the UK, if only in order to deter others in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden from following a similar course. But by the time exit day had come into view, the mood had changed. It would appear that the leaders of the main EU countries, even France, realised it would be in their own interest to have a warm and, it is to be hoped, mutually beneficial relationship with the offshore islanders who, after all, have one of the world’s top economies, armed forces that are more capable than those of most of their neighbours, and still wield plenty of “soft power.”

They also appreciate that, big as the EU undoubtedly is, with a far larger population than the US, boasting about a market of “450 million consumers” can be misleading. Much of Europe is struggling; hopes that, thanks to the euro, the huge differences between member countries such as Bulgaria and Sweden, say, would automatically decrease have proved to be wildly premature. Instead of converging, the economies even of wealthy and advanced countries like Germany and Italy have continued to go their separate ways. As for the very poorest ones, they are being stripped of their best and brightest who move to places, among them the UK where they can thrive.

For the euro to work as the people who engendered it said it would, the EU would need to have a finance minister with far-reaching powers which, as the Germans are well-aware, would end up making mandatory revenue-sharing schemes. Not surprisingly, they greatly dislike the idea that they should bankroll others they regard as lazy, feckless, corrupt or merely backward.

In the UK, a net contributor to the EU budget, some experts in economic matters say they feel relieved that, once all the loose ends have been dealt with, their country will not be obliged to help prop up a tottering euro or join in a probably doomed attempt to keep Italy afloat. Much like the sceptics who think Brexit was an appalling mistake, they see financial storm clouds on the horizon, though in their case they predict that, when they burst, they will do far less harm to them than to the people on the other side of the English Channel.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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