12 December 2018
Last week, a friend in London sent me a photo of her costume for her office Christmas party. She wore a blue beret with yellow stars pinned on it, and a placard saying: “All I want for Christmas is EU.” Unfortunately, my friend – like the rest of the British population – will not see her wishes fulfilled this festive season. Britain is paralysed and divided, and its self-imposed decline will have consequences for Australia.
Two years ago, the UK narrowly opted for a deluded grasp at some utopian vision, in which tighter controls over trade regulations and borders would not only compensate for the ensuing economic losses, but also restore imperial pride – a return to “Great Britain”, as Boris Johnson put it. The nation, or 51.9 per cent of it, bought the promise and left the details (and the reality) for another day – and now that day has come.
British prime minister Theresa May, a former Remainer now entrusted to oversee the exit, spent 524 days devising a 585-page agreement with the EU. Still, it allowed for a transition period of at least two years and left crucial decisions unresolved.
Hardline Brexiteers hate the deal. This is mainly because, to avoid an impasse over the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, British trade would effectively be subject to EU rules until the issue is resolved, which could be indefinitely.
On Monday, May delayed a vote on the deal because most MPs, including the Remainers, oppose it. This has left Britain closer to a “no deal” Brexit when it formally leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. Chaos could follow, particularly if the EU decides to punish Britain for its departure: planes may be stuck in Heathrow because airlines would lose their licences, businesses might suddenly have to complete reams of customs and duties paperwork, and Brits may suddenly have to pay international roaming charges in the EU.
For now, the fate of the deal remains uncertain. Ultimately, Brexit is likely to leave the country weaker, poorer and smaller. Scotland has indicated it might secede. A poll last week found 53 per cent of Scots preferred independence to remaining in a Britain outside the EU. In June, the Financial Times found that Brexit was already costing the average household £870 a year, and the amount was increasing. Britain’s Treasury believes the losses will worsen after it leaves, and that Brexit will shave up to 4 per cent off its GDP over the next fifteen years.
None of this is in Britain’s interests, or Australia’s. Since World War II, Australia’s primary security ally has been the United States, but it retains close relations with Britain and benefits from its economic and military strength. The two countries share intelligence and defence links, as well as cultural, historic and demographic ties that frequently contribute to a shared outlook on world affairs. Unlike the US, Britain is not a superpower and therefore cannot freely impose its will on the international stage – so, like Australia, its prosperity depends on a global order based on rules and institutions.
Still, several prominent Australian political figures backed Brexit, buoyed by scepticism towards multinational groupings like the EU. Former prime minister John Howard welcomed the referendum result as a way for Britain to “regain control of their borders” and implied it was a “reassertion of British sovereignty”. Tony Abbott opposed Brexit before the referendum, but later said he was “quietly thrilled that the British people have resolved to claim back their country”.
Yet Britain, the world’s fifth-wealthiest country, never abandoned its national sovereignty. It retained the pound, the royal family and much of the imperial system. It has its own parliament (including hereditary peers) and an executive, which could have tried to negotiate new terms with the EU (as David Cameron attempted to do).
Yes, the EU – like any mammoth institution – has sizeable faults. It is agonisingly bureaucratic, and interminably divided over whether to act like a united nation or a trade grouping. But these are not reasons to quit, especially since Britain, one of the EU’s most powerful members, was well positioned to pursue change from the inside.
Now, Great Britain is in limbo. A second referendum seems unlikely, as does a “hard Brexit”, in which the nation severs all trade and customs ties with the EU. Yet May’s proposal – and her future – seem doomed.
The EU has never had much vocal support. It has no sports team, or shared language. It enables commerce, lowers borders and encourages cooperation in a part of the world that experienced two cataclysmic wars within a generation. It was not the sort of thing that one became excited about, until it was upended.