Brexit saves the EU (humour)
It’s hard now to recall now, but until quite recently many people thought Brexit would start a stampede out of the EU.
Then Donald Trump arrived to usher Brexiters into their glorious free-trading future. Just before taking office, he assured Brexiter Michael Gove in a newspaper interview: “I’m a big fan of the UK. We’re gonna work very hard to get it [a US-UK trade deal] done quickly and done properly.” As recently as this February, Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right League, compared the EU to “the Titanic about to sink”. When Salvini helped form a Eurosceptic government this spring, even some sensible people expected him to sink the EU ship.
But since then, the risk has all but vanished. That’s largely because we now know one thing about Brexit: it will be a failure, in the sense that it will make Britons’ lives worse. Brexit has saved the EU.
Most of the time, Brexit seems like the worst British comedy series ever: a robotic main character, sparring with a couple of stock British eccentrics; endless bureaucratic arguments; and almost no plot development. Yet this month, something finally happened: the British cabinet, gathered at prime minister Theresa May’s country house Chequers, ditched “hard Brexit”. This had been the fantasy that the UK would leave all European institutions and jet around the world signing amazing trade deals.
After the cabinet’s decision, several senior Conservatives resigned. However, they don’t even have a majority within their party to revive hard Brexit, especially as their fantasy trade partner has just started an international trade war.
That leaves the UK with three options: 1. “Soft Brexit”, which means paying the EU to obey almost all its rules and forgoing trade deals. 2. No-deal Brexit: crashing out of the EU, queues at the border, flights grounded, the Royal Air Force delivering food and medicines etc. 3. No Brexit.
Whichever option the UK stumbles into, the final outcome is now clear: British humiliation. Given that, you really have to love 19th-century sovereignty (or regard yourself as being outside the economy, for example retired) to keep supporting Brexit.
And Brexit’s failure fits a continuum. In 2015, Greece’s Syriza government tried to renegotiate its relationship with the EU, or maybe leave, and failed too. Today, Syriza is a docile pro-EU government. Italy’s new government has already stopped talking about leaving the EU or the euro, frightened by spikes in Italian bond yields this spring. In France, Le Pen now says: “We can improve the daily life of French people without leaving either Europe or the euro.” Explaining her change of mind, she admits: “We have heard the French.”
And not just the French: support for the EU around the continent is at its highest since 1983, according to the European Commission’s survey of 27,601 people in April. Brexit has converted many young Britons into fanatical Europhiles of a type that barely existed in the UK before. The EU has also acquired the perfect external enemy: Trump is even less popular in Europe than at home, so when he calls the EU a “foe”, he helps unite Europeans behind it.
Populists are quietly dropping EU exits from their offering. They will still have enough to talk about. They may simply get nastier: Salvini now bangs on nonstop about migrants. Vladimir Putin is supplanting Brexit as the latest populist geopolitical cause. However, Brexit may persuade many voters that the thing populists do best is sloganeering.
The vote for Brexit was in part an attempt to relive the emotional heights of Britain’s second world war. Fittingly, then, Brexit will probably end up re-enacting wartime Britain’s selfless rescue of continental Europe, only this time as farce. One sacrifice was required to bury the whole issue of leaving Europe, and the UK happened to get there first. Like the EU or loathe it, the Brits have shown you can’t leave it. For better or worse, the EU now looks as inevitable as capitalism.
Simon Kuper, July 26 2018 Financial Times