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The Brexit Crisis

Brexit in Crisis       Gerry O'Shea

In the 1992 Presidential election which pitted Bill Clinton against the sitting president George H.W. Bush, senior Clinton adviser, James Carville, famously advised his candidate to focus on dinner table issues with the pithy and oft-repeated political wisdom statement "it's the economy stupid."

That advice did not prevail with the British people who in 2016 voted in a referendum by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. They disregarded the steady and substantial growth in their country's wealth, in their GDP, since they became part of the EU in 1973. Since joining, the median income for wage earners in Great Britain has increased by an impressive 79%;  by comparison, using the same measure, the United States registered a modest improvement of 16%.  Within the EU, over the last 45 years, the British economic  growth rate slightly exceeded Germany and was well ahead of France.

There are three main trading blocs in the world in the 21st century: one is built around the burgeoning economy in China, another centers on the  United States and its NAFTA allies on its north and south and, finally, the European Union, which is the largest and most powerful of the three, with around 500 million people in 28 countries. For Britain to leave this trading and political partnership, where they have been doing exceptionally well, to paddle their own canoe in a very competitive world makes no economic sense.

A group of right-wing Tories pushed then prime minister David Cameron into holding a plebiscite in June 2016 on exiting Europe because they feared that the surge of refugees from Syria and surrounding countries would engulf the big English cities and, even more important, they resented the fact that, from their standpoint, Brussels, the administrative center of the EU, had effectively reduced Westminster powers in important areas like excessive regulations of the British banking and insurance industries and intrusive laws on  environmental protection.

They resent that from winning two European wars in the last century and ruling a huge empire, they are reduced to one voice among 28 in Europe. They defeated Germany twice in savage world conflicts, but now, with the emotions that still linger from those wars, they feel that Britain is diminished having to deal with Berlin as the strongest and most exuberant economy in Europe.

The vote in June 2016 mandated the government to leave the EU, but there was no clarity about what exactly that entailed.  Would tariff walls go up around the United Kingdom? What about the free movement of workers? No wonder that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, tweeted in frustration "I've been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even the sketch of a plan."

To this day, parliamentarians in Westminster can't agree on how to honor the results of the referendum. The prime minister, Theresa May, after months of negotiation with her colleagues in Westminster and with the leaders of the other 27 countries in Europe presented her extensive proposal for parliamentary approval. This document, her best effort at compromise, was defeated by 432 votes to 202, a larger losing margin than was ever suffered by a previous prime minister.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labor Party in Westminster, seems to endorse the referendum results but wants a broad deal similar to the European bloc's agreement with Norway where just the trading and customs arrangement with the EU would remain in force - a kind of external association with Brussels.

A majority of members of the Labor Party - although not Mr. Corbyn - favors remaining in the EU and want whatever final deal is negotiated put to the people again to vote up or down in another referendum - this time the people would not be voting on a vague proposition but on a particular stated practical offer for change.

It is ironic that the so-called backstop, which guarantees that there will not be a hard border dividing the two parts of Ireland, has become a serious obstacle to a settlement. The Irish border, which was opposed by a strong majority on the island but was forced on them by the powerful British Establishment a hundred years ago, is now a major impediment to implementing the results of their 2016 referendum. To complicate matters further a majority of the citizens in Northern Ireland voted against leaving Europe.

 A  major component of the Good Friday Agreement entails an open border between North and South. The European leaders strongly support Dublin's insistence that going back to the old ways of physical barriers and military personnel would be disastrous, possibly leading to a renewal of the Troubles.

To deal with this challenging problem Prime Minister May proposed that all of the UK remain in the customs union until an alternative arrangement, which could not include a return to a hard border, is negotiated. However, this  proposal by the Prime Minister was roundly defeated with many of the MP's  ascribing their decision to reject it to their dislike of the Irish backstop.

This is a major impasse in the oldest democracy in the world because they can't come up with a parliamentary majority for any possible solution. The agreed end date right now is March 29th - just a few weeks away.

There are three possible outcomes. First, there will be no solution or agreement on a way forward. This will result in Great Britain "crashing  out" - the language being used in both London and Brussels - which is favored by a minority of Tories but is considered disastrous by everyone else. If that happens, the Irish Government would be responsible for placing customs barriers along the 310-mile  border.

The plans of the second group, appropriately called  Remainers, revolve around a preference for another plebiscite. Those arguing this position would get considerable support from moderate conservatives and Liberals, but they would need the full backing of Corbyn to succeed - quite unlikely at this stage. The leading Remainers hope that another referendum would result in maintaining the status quo - Britain staying in Europe.

The third group would involve some kind of compromise where the United Kingdom would work out a  form of negotiated external relationship with the European Union. If there was a serious will to do this, it is likely that the European leaders would extend the deadline past the end of next month. This approach got the late blessing of Jeremy Corbin, provided certain conditions are met.

It is very difficult to predict which of the three approaches will prevail. Momentous times!




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