Waiting for Brexit

Kevin O’Rourke’s ‘A Short History of Brexit’ provides an excellent introduction to the British muddle, but does not resolve it.

Brexit is a comedy by Samuel Beckett about suicide. However it seems to involve a numberless (and numbing) number of acts. If you have arrived at the theatre late, you may not do better than catchup by reading A Short History of Brexit: From Brexit to Backstop by Kevin O’Rourke.

I have long admired O’Rourke. He is a technically strong economic historian – a nice balance since it combines the analytic skills of an economist with the memory, judgement and writing fluency of an historian. He admits that the subject is so politically treacherous that you need to know the writer’s background. He was born in Switzerland to an Irish diplomat father, who also served in Brussels, London and Paris, and a Danish mother. Trained in Ireland and the US, he lives in Ireland, holds a chair at Oxford and writes in France (close to the Swiss border). In summary, he is an internationalist committed to the open economy, bringing an Irish perspective.

The book’s narrative begins in the nineteenth century but mine begins after the war, as Britain was losing an empire but not finding an alternative role in world affairs. In 1946 Churchill gave his famous ‘Zurich’ speech in which he urged a ‘United States of Europe’ and, particularly, rapprochement between France and Germany. It is justly remembered for its farsightedness. But Churchill’s vision had two major mistakes which persist in much British thinking.

First, he saw Britain with the British Commonwealth – India was about to get its independence – as one of the four great world powers, with America, the Soviet Union and Europe. (No mention of China or Japan.)

Second, coupled with thinking that Britain would be more important than it is – the view is characteristic of Brexiters – Churchill also misunderstood the nature of the European project. He seemed to think that Britain would lead Europe. In fact O’Rourke reports that time and again in the postwar era, British diplomacy has been ham-fisted towards the rest of Europe. There are two obvious problems.

First, the British tend to think of the European Union as a federation, in which power resides in the European Commission. How else can you explain May’s persistent belief that she can pop over to Brussels for a day and come back with a new deal? Rather it is a confederation, in which power is retained by the member states. The Commission has to consult with the 27 other member states, a good number of who will raise other issues if the deal changes (e.g. Spain has concerns about Gibraltar).

Thinking you are in a federation when you are in a confederation confuses your understanding the nature of sovereignty (another Brexiter failure). Yes, a state loses some sovereignty in a confederation but not as much as in a federation, Actually, you lose some sovereignty once you enter into global trade (although not as much as in a confederation).

Additionally, Margaret Thatcher saw the EU as a liberal trading arrangement. I do not think that she – nor Brexiters (she was not one) – really understood that the EU is not ultimately about trade. Economic integration is a means to an end. The ultimate end is the abolition of conflict on the European continent. (Thus far it has done so pretty well within its boundaries.)

Europe is littered with national boundaries all of which are ambiguous; rivers are easy to bridge while most passes across the generally low mountain chains are far from challenging. Over the years, jurisdictional boundaries have moved back and forth depending on the whims of the most recent conquering power – and so have people. The temptation to shift them again to settle old grievances caused conflict after conflict.

Federalist Europeans want to abolish the boundaries. Nation states are not so enthusiastic so the confederation strategy has been to diminish their significance. Today goods and services may cross them almost as easily as if they were not there; so may people and, in some respects, laws. Without significant boundaries, Europe’s conflicts are relegated to politicians’ occasional shouting matches and football and Eurovision competitions.

There is one real boundary in Europe – the English Channel (‘la Manche’ to those to its south). That it is a significant boundary can be observed at Calais with its masses of refugees that cannot get across. England has been successfully invaded only twice in the last thousand years (1066 by the Normans; 1688 by William of Orange and then with the help of English Protestants). So the British (should I say English?) view of national boundaries is quite different from the rest of Europe’s.

But the United Kingdom has one boundary which may be even more arbitrary than anywhere else in Europe: between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. (The book’s history details just how accidental its lines are.)

When I first looked at the Brexit issue I thought the row over the Irish border was a symbol of the political conflict rather than central to it. Such contentious issues often arise in public debates. While they are not the main issue, they are something that the disputants can grasp easily and quarrel over vigorously.

I still think that. Britain’s long-term relationship with the rest of Europe and the world remains the central issue. But O’Rourke taught me to see the Irish border dispute as a way of understanding Europe’s troubles over borders and the genius of the EU in resolving them. Europeans with a hankering for going it alone may come to a similar conclusion,

There are no immediate lessons here for New Zealand, fortunate as we are to be without border disputes (iwi concerns with delimiting their rohe aside). The bigger economic lesson is the role of unimpeded (free) trade as an integral part of the world’s political system. Secure behind our borders, we overlook this at our peril.

As for Brexit? O’Rourke’s book suggests that whatever happens this March or following a referendum or whatever, the tensions in British relations with Europe which have existed for centuries are not going to go away. However, if the Brits get a more realistic view of their place in the world (which is neither a great power nor an insignificant one) and a better understanding of Europe’s preoccupations (perhaps the Irish border will teach them), the tensions will be muted and able to be handled with less conflict than the stupidity of the last few years.

I have sometimes thought that Vladimir and Estragon were lucky that Godot never turned up.