Three years after popular vote, the UK still requests further Brexit delays
Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva Gama[i]
Three years after “leaving the European Union” conquered 52% of the votes in a national referendum, British Prime Minister Theresa May (Conservative Party) still seeks further extensions of the Brexit implications from an increasingly impatient EU. As the psychodrama unfolds, acrimony has already spread between the Azores and the Urals. From fashionists in Milano to dock workers in Gdansk, everyone is figuring out their lot in the losing game these days.
Enough promises have been locked up ever since. May become a hostage in the Brexit bus – unable to break a deal at the Parliament, yet resilient in 10 Downing St, as the prolonged stalemate broke the ranks of government and opposition alike (not to mention a sharp downturn of economic indicators). The EU kept the upper hand in forcing a debilitated May through successful legislative ordeals. The latest trial was an 11-hour attempt of compromise with other Leave enthusiast, Jeremy Corbyn (Labour Party), in which a contested premier gradually endorsed the circumvention of parliamentary rules. There is no doubt the EU is now the political arbiter of the continent – but at a sorrowful economic cost.
In France, apocalyptic scenes of hundreds of trucks stranded on the way to Calais have been, for the moment, averted. However, a Eurostar strike on the French side of the channel sent alarming signs. Slightly relieved from the gilets jaunes at the domestic front, President Emmanuel Macron doubled the pressure on the UK, sidelined by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. As the closest neighbours, they are the ones with the most to lose from Brexit. No surprise, they are indulging in raising exit costs for May.
In an age where Italy and Greece adhere to China’s Road and Belt Initiative[ii], 73% of Italians would spend more in acquiring “Made in Italy” products if given the choice, as stated in a poll conducted by Metro newspaper[iii]. For a country six decades into the Union, the finding sounds slightly disturbing. This paradox – integrated economies in globalized capitalism, where consumers confer preferential treatment to national product – stem from market structures.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, Western Europe was under the sway of a dual process of post-war reconstruction and regional integration. When Euro-enthusiast neofunctionalists provocatively proposed that integration would eventually go “beyond the nation-state”[iv], not only Charles de Gaulle disagreed at the time. National efforts of supporting old and new industries alike fed additional integrating moves – the prototypical example is the Schuman Plan[v]. There was also ample room for (anti-Soviet) nationalism in the burgeoning economies of mid-20th century Europe. As millions of immigrants from former colonies in Africa and Asia provided indispensable contributions to post-war efforts, the state of European integration could be framed as some kind of “cooperative nationalism”[vi].
Cut to the next century. Those now mature developed economies seem landlocked in slow growth[vii] (not to mention population stagnation, with the possible exception of a reunified Germany). Abroad, competition intensified with a contested US as well as with rising emerging economies from South Asia (including awoke giants Japan, China and India). Managing immigration become an EU cornerstone.
Unintended consequences of a successful integration process brought European Union member states against one another in competitive abundance[viii]. Post-Cold War nationalism moves in disintegration pushes, forcing any safe boundaries sketched by the Brussels bureaucracy. Brexit is only the most acute symptom of those anxieties experienced by liberal democracies in globalization’s ongoing crisis.
The EU got used to the situation in which a weak British government is too legit to quit without a deal. However, as the deadline for holding communitarian elections (by the end of May) becomes more pressing, a paradoxical situation gains traction. By further weakening Theresa May, the alternatives offered by chief negotiators Donald Tusk and Michael Barnier turn the Brexit novel into an exemplary case on how not to leave the Union. A customs Union – the so-called “soft Brexit” or “Norway deal” – effectively leaves behind the rationale victorious at the 2016 referendum[ix]. Promises of the UK as a free trade champion become meaningless, at the cost of the cohesion of the Conservative Party.
Besides any pedagogical impacts for the remaining 27 member states, the fall of May raises the stakes for another group of interlocutors – and bring them to play. A snap election at the United Kingdom would result in beleaguered triumphs (a hard Brexiter minority government or a Corbyn administration). A baffled EU would be left with unattractive options: making unilateral concessions to an even weaker British government, in order to avoid even higher costs of no-deal. A long extension – the kind May finds unacceptable by now – maximizes, therefore, different risks of the UK crashing out without a deal.
Regional integration can no longer walk unafraid through the lines of minor resistance in a thriving globalization[x]. As constituencies and governments face complex choices, political hurdles pile up.
Disentanglement from a regional integration mechanism is not simply a divorce. British attorney-general Geoffrey Cox clearly stated that: “I feel we underestimated complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration. This needed to be done with very great care, in a phased and graduated way[xi]”. As the EU’s emergency Brexit summit approaches, though, May seems to be running out of time.
[i] Visiting Professor – Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane (Morocco). Professor of International Relations – Universidade Federal do Tocantins (Brazil)
[ii] Lynch, C. (2019). “Bolton Builds Anti-China Campaign at the U.N.”. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/03/bolton-builds-anti-china-campaign-at-the-u-n/. Access in: April 05 2019.
[iii] Metro (2019). “Punti de Vista, Lunedi, 25 febbraio 2019”, pp.8.
[iv] Haas, E. (1964). Beyond the Nation-State: Functionalism and International Organization. Stanford, Stanford University Press.
[v] Ionescu, G. (1972). The New Politics of European Integration. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
[vi] Young, J.W. (1993). Britain and European unity, 1945-1992. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
[vii] Donce, L. (2019). “La ‘japonización’ de la economía europea”. El País. Retrieved from: https://elpais.com/economia/2019/04/05/actualidad/1554477454_725646.html. Access in: April 07 2019.
[viii] Gama, C.F.P.S. (2019). “Unification among contradictions: Germany and Europe face globalization in crisis”. Sociology International Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp. 61-63.
[x] O’Sullivan, M. (2015). “Is Globalization Thriving or Coming to an End?” Credit Suisse. Retrieved from: https://www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/articles/news-and-expertise/is-globalization-thriving-or-coming-to-an-end-201510.html. Access in: October 09 2015.