May 24, 2019

Having exhausted all possible alternatives

By Barend ter Haar.

Is it Winston Churchill who once remarked that “The United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all possible alternatives”? Can the same now be said about the United Kingdom with regard to the European Union?

For more than two years the British government has looked for alternatives for staying in the European Union. As could be foreseen (see Why Brexit might not take place), the promised advantages proved illusionary, while the predicted problems proved very real.[1]

Brexit is costing the United Kingdom already half a billion pounds a week. Most Brexiteers might be willing to pay that price, but are not willing to risk a new outbreak of the civil war in Northern Ireland by denouncing the Good Friday Agreement that made an end to that war.

That means that the border between Ulster and the Irish Republic has to remain open. One way to accomplish that would be to keep Northern Ireland in the European single market and set up a new border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The alternative would be to keep the whole United Kingdom in the single market. That  would mean that it would be bound by the rules made in Brussels without having a say in them: the opposite of being “back in control”.

It is not surprising that, as it has become clear that Brexit will bring the United Kingdom few benefits and many disadvantages, all polls point to a majority for remain if a new referendum would be held.

However, unless a sufficient number of MP’s dares to put the long term national interest above the interests of their party or faction, Prime Minister May might win her gamble and get her proposal approved by parliament in the next few weeks. But if she does not succeed, a postponement of Brexit is almost certain and a second referendum becomes more likely.

No matter whether the UK will remain in the EU or not, the deep societal divide that the Brexit referendum has brought to light will remain, because the deeper cause of this divide is not membership of the EU, but the uneven consequences of globalization. In this respect Great Britain does not differ from other Western countries such as France and the Netherlands. Half or more of the people of these countries feel that they suffer the disadvantages of Europeanisation while the benefits go mainly to the elites and they fear that the immigration of people of a different culture will disturb the social cohesion of their neighbourhoods.

Governments should address these feelings and fears, not by withdrawing from international cooperation and hiding behind national borders and walls, like populist parties would like them to do, but by intensifying international cooperation to deal with the root causes of these problems.


[1] https://www.clingendael.org/publication/why-brexit-might-not-take-place

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