November 22, 2017
Friday, July 14, 2017

The mood after Brexit: can anybody tell what’s happening?

A member of staff arranged the EU and UK flags before a press conference at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels.
By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald

Nobody appears to be relaxed about the issue, even if life in the UK does seem to go on normally

LONDON — Not a day goes by without reference to Brexit in the British press. On Monday (July 10) the Evening Standard’s front page was devoted to cancer treatment concerns once the United Kingdom has left the European Union. Last Friday (July 7) British business expressed a need for extended, open-ended talks, with no deadlines on separation. Saturday (July 8), German businesses warned London to expect no help from them.

Just a little under 20 months away from the departure date in March 2019, nobody appears to be relaxed about the issue, even if life in England does seem to go on normally. However, there is an outside chance — there always has to be — that the current financial and political upheaval which Brexit is leading to might bring in economic changes that could alter the face of Europe for a long time ahead.

A recent poll in London showed 60 per cent of those questioned wanted to stay in Europe. Cultural and business leaders who voted to keep the rights to live and work in Europe. They warned of the damage that Brexit would do to Britain and Europe. The young especially (aged 18 to 24) totalled 85 per cent of those aspiring to keep European citizenship. On July 4, the Engineering Employers’ Federation CEO, Terry Scuoler, warned that, “painful cuts will be inevitable” in industry. “UK businesses need to know soon what arrangements will be in place after March 2019 to be able to plan, make investment decisions and have confidence that an orderly and carefully managed approach to Brexit is under way,” he said. There is an urgent “need to know what transitional arrangements will be in place and for how long,” before the deadline. In short, British industry wants a long debate on the benefits and misfortunes faced by a breakaway from the European bloc.

Confidence in a fresh beginning promised by Brexit advocates, loudly led after initial rejection by former mayor of London Boris Johnson, is fading. The dwindling hope for positive change in a swathe of the public is due to the lack of reassurances from the political classes. Prime Minister Theresa May, who sat on the fence over Brexit ahead of the referendum on June 23 last year and ended the government of David Cameron, is now leading the UK into battle. Her poor showing at last week’s G20 meeting in Hamburg left Britain as a sorry figure, very much alone among world leaders and with nobody to turn to at present.

The damaging effects of Brexit are noticeable. The pound’s value has slipped, some doom dealers in the small business group claim that thousands of companies “have moved” to Ireland. This means that they have changed their registration address to Dublin, even though a physical move has not taken place. There have been rumblings of revolt in the Labour Party and Conservative ministers have been questioning not only the abilities of the prime minister to carry through the exit, but she “is seen to have an inadequate view of the future,” according to one political analyst. A Liberal Party leader has ventured that Brexit will never happen. This is not easily envisioned either as Europe will have to invest time and money in renegotiating itself. Whether Britain leaves or stays.

Major overhaul

What is clear is that the battle over Brexit is the run-up to a major overhaul of Europe as from 2019. That cannot be avoided. The mood for such a circumstance has been captured by Tim Shipman, political editor at the Sunday Times, perhaps one of the most sensitive posts in the British press, in his massive (nearly 700 pages) revised edition of All Out War — The Full Story of Brexit (William Collins). Shipman retraces recent history from January 2013 when David Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum if his renegotiations with Europe fell short of what was being demanded by a cross-section of the British Parliament. Shipman closes his political history that reads like a thriller with a quote by Rob Oxley, Brexit campaign manager, “When it comes down to people criticising what the campaign did, we weren’t out there to make friends. We weren’t there to have the academic debate about the EU. We were out there to win — and we did.”

Hence there is nothing Confucian about the exit issue. No-one can say, “If Brexit is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Nobody is prepared to even guess what benefits might lie in a disaster or whether any relaxation is possible in the face of job cuts and severe economic restraint.

In the “great British press,” not one paper has an editorial outline of the changes that might happen in the economy or in the everyday patterns of work and industry, perhaps because nobody can hope for anything more than sensible (and successful) negotiations by Britain.

The Financial Times suggested that there could be a retreat into the European Free Trade Association (now formed by Norway, Sweden, Liechtenstein and Iceland) which Britain helped found in 1959 as a rival to the then EEC or “Common Market.” But Britain patriotically pulled out of the smaller EFTA gathering in 1973 and entered Europe, under conditions largely imposed by the recently deceased French president Charles De Gaulle, reflecting his stated opinion that Britain could only join on terms set by the French government.

What empire expanded

What seems possible is that the UK’s demerger, partly or wholly within Europe, will see a reversal of its policy of expansion and openness in the world. In other words, what empire expanded, Brexit restrains.

The rival mood of optimism is growing in the Labour Party. Since the election as leader of leftist MP Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015 enthusiasm ran from close to breaking point to dramatic. The near defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May in elections on June 8 was converted into elation in the mood at the Glastonbury Festival, on June 21, among young and old.

Taking shape in emotion at Glastonbury and after is a generation in part inspired by the lines of Corbyn and especially the fall-out from “Grexit” (the Greek economic crisis). That holds a call for more job openings in business and industry, an end to government squeezes and austerity in the name of economic order, and a strong up-grading of the welfare state. It should be remembered that Brexit advocates launched their campaign claiming that Britain was contributing over US$400 million (£350 million) per week to Europe. That money would be better spent on the National Health Service, the exit campaigners said.

How strongly this mood of economic change will spread is hard to guess. British writer Paul Mason, 57, charted a new path in his book, The End of Capitalism, published in 2015. The book and its proposals promoted debate. And the very short-term economy minister (January to July 2015) of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, 56, is currently addressing audiences of thousands in European tours explaining why he thinks his country should have withdrawn from the EU stranglehold.

Whether or not the likes of Mason and Varoufakis, with Corbyn and similar on the political front, will get a solid following for their theories against the European liberal version of our ajuste cannot be forecast. However, March 2019 might just be an interesting start for a collective and new reformation.(PS: that would fit in comfortably with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s reform, and maybe even decide if economics are a science or a religion.)

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