When zooming out from one other 10 days of Brexit surprises in London and Brussels, and looking out on the previous decade of Europe’s disaster politics, you realise one factor: in Europe’s moments of reality, politics trumps the financial system.
The Brexiters by no means understood this, though it’s a essential lesson to be drawn from the eurozone turmoil, the EU’s standoff with Russia or the migration disaster.
When the unity of the union or peace on the continent is at stake, political motives for being collectively prevail over purely financial pursuits. The identical can be true through the subsequent stage of the Brexit disaster.
Simply take the result of final week’s EU summit. Surprisingly sufficient, the approaching financial disaster of a no-deal Brexit solely got here second within the reasoning to political assessments.
In Westminster, the humiliation of the UK having to take part within the Might European elections centered minds, somewhat than the lack of eight per cent of GPD and hundreds of jobs. Therefore Theresa Might’s demand for a brief extension till June 30th, which she hoped may keep away from that election participation. Her EU colleagues solely gave her half of what she needed (with a delay till Might 22nd conditional upon a optimistic vote within the Home of Commons, and till April 12th within the case of no deal).
On the European facet, too, electoral concerns carried weight. Nationwide leaders wish to present their very own voters the clear prices of an EU exit, which is far simpler with the UK exterior. President Macron, battling at house with Marine Le Pen, pushed for a shorter extension. Apparently the Frenchman was extra convincing than German Chancellor Merkel, a extra prudent character, who desires to keep away from main turmoil forward of a Europe-wide public vote.
The blindness to the politics of Brexit was brilliantly illuminated when, in late 2017, David Davis gave a speech in Berlin to an viewers of German enterprise leaders. The then Brexit secretary warned the EU27 to watch out for harming their very own economies within the talks, advising them to not put “politics above prosperity”. His viewers greeted these phrases with laughter and disbelief. The encounter revealed the depth of mutual misunderstanding.
German and different EU enterprise leaders see the Brexit referendum as an irresponsible act, a case of financial hara-kiri. How may a number one Brexiter, of all individuals, inform them to not put politics above prosperity? The British minister failed to know the extent to which his nation’s exit from the European order is skilled by Germany, Eire and different EU member states as an existential political assault on the foundations of the union, to be withstood in any respect prices.
This harmless misunderstanding foreshadowed the elemental impasse over the avoidance of a future “laborious border” between the Republic of Eire and Northern Eire, so as to protect the delicate peace within the North.
That intractable subject pits the UK’s territorial sovereignty in opposition to the EU’s willpower to defend its integrity – two grave causes. The one was expressed by Might’s solemn promise to occasion and nation to not “break up my nation” (by accepting a customs border within the Irish Sea as a method out of the dilemma); the opposite by the EU’s resolve because the Brexit vote to not let the UK “have its cake and eat it too”, for worry of encouraging additional exits. In sum: politics above prosperity on either side (albeit with far decrease relative prices for the remaining 27 members).
Because of this the backstop seems to be Brexit’s best stumbling block till the very finish, one thing which got here as a shock to the actors themselves. Beforehand, UK and EU negotiators anticipated all of it to finish with a cathartic “Battle of the Divorce Invoice” (as a UK prime diplomat confessed to me late final 12 months). However the invoice was settled over a 12 months in the past, whereas the backstop nonetheless haunts us three weeks earlier than the no-deal cliff.
For this case, not solely London is guilty. The Brussels equipment is completely ill-equipped to cope with border points. It excels within the artwork of “depoliticising”: taking the politics out of conflicts and treating them as issues to be technically or legally solved; it labored marvels for EU market integration. However this method will get no grip on borders.
A border is pure politics: an arbitrary line between us and them. It’s pure historical past, too, on this case: colonial historical past, a scar of previous occasions surviving in our establishments and identities. Borders, in different phrases, can’t be “depoliticised”, not reasoned away due to a authorized repair or technological trick.
Nor can they be on the identical time seen and invisible, as is kindly requested by the negotiating events of the 499km line between Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough.
When accepting the backstop precept in late 2017, the Fee and the EU27 light-heartedly glossed over the truth that should you go away the customs union, you want a border someplace, both within the Irish Sea or on the island of Eire; therefore the accusation of a entice. Simply as light-heartedly, London first pretended the difficulty could possibly be solved with know-how earlier than operating into the sand of authorized explanations. Since then, either side have stood agency on their facet of the dilemma, which implies the one strategy to keep away from a crash is delay.
Though electoral concerns have resulted in a brief delay, geostrategic ones could level towards an extended pause. Within the open letter to all Europeans which Macron despatched in early March, he proposed that the UK ought to stay a part of any future European safety cooperation, additionally post-Brexit.
In an age when Putin, Xi and Trump are all undermining Europe’s cherished rule-based worldwide order, it’s not a luxurious to have the UK, along with France, the one different European state with a reputable military and diplomatic clout, in your facet. A no deal will instantly scale back any such thought to tatters. The political impression would go far past Eurostar queues, penicillin supply bother, or rotting fruit within the ports of Rotterdam, Dublin or Rosslare – it is going to trigger bitterness and resentment between either side of the Channel that will final a decade or extra.
On this wider perspective, avoiding a “laborious border” on the island of Eire is however one ingredient of an general strategic evaluation.
The result stays as unpredictable as political life may be. My private guess: sure, EU leaders have now granted the UK an extension as soon as, since they can’t be seen to hold the accountability for the fallout of no deal. However they won’t accomplish that twice.
Luuk van Middelaar is a political theorist who served as speechwriter to European Council president Herman Van Rompuy (2010-204). This month he publishes Alarums & Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage (Agenda Publishing) on the EU’s disaster years. He can be talking on the IIEA in Dublin, on Tuesday, March 26th