Why the UK should put Brexit on hold
Few people could have honestly believed at the beginning of last year that by the end of it the many pieces of the Brexit jigsaw would still not be joined together to make some sort of a picture, not even a worryingly fuzzy one.
The situation is more muddled than ever, with little to no chance that when MPs convene in mid-January they will support the agreement reached by the government with the European Union.
If this is the case, what happens next? Leaving without a deal? Extending Article 50 and thereby officially postponing Brexit? A new referendum? A general election? If complete chaos is to be avoided, at least one of these responses will need to be in place before the March 29 deadline for the UK’s departure from the EU.
Much of the debate revolves around the pros and cons for the UK of staying in or leaving the EU, but missing from this discourse has been the question of how the absence of the UK will affect the EU. Britain was not a founding state, was slow to join, and has always had reservations about the European project and the pace at which it has headed toward an “ever-closer union.”
Yet with Britain’s democratic traditions, its measured approach to international affairs and its strong economy, its presence at the heart of the EU has always had a positive effect. Such influence becomes even more essential at a time when the winds of extremist politics are blowing.
It is not too late for the Brexit debate in the UK, and within Europe, to go back to the foundational precept of the EU, and why it so essential to fortify it.
A continent that was the cradle of nationalism, including its vilest forms, has been attempting to develop a mixed model of governance in which diverse nation states move steadily toward some sort of federal system, with a European identity in harmony with the national identities of its few dozen member states. These ideas have now been stretched near to breaking point in several parts of the EU and the question of future relations with the UK is as much about the future and essence of the European Union as it is about Brexit. Without the four freedoms of movement — for goods, services, capital and people — the EU cannot be what it set out to be.
From the outset, the debate about Brexit has been misconstrued by those who supported it and those who opposed it. Both concentrated mainly on the practicalities of leaving, which devalues the crux of the matter — the role of the EU as an idea, as a vision, of maintaining peace through enhancing its population’s human security and well-being.
From its very humble beginnings in the 1950s, the EU has evolved into a mega-experiment in international relations, with the goal of achieving collective security through economic prosperity and the removal of psychological barriers as much as physical ones. The European project has shifted the energy of peoples and nations away from devastating military conflicts toward constructive, peaceful economic competition and cooperation.
This exercise in international social engineering, which (still) includes 28 countries and comprises more than half a billion people, has had tremendous success in averting conflict and bringing prosperity to every member country, in almost every region. It has created employment, educational and cultural opportunities for millions, from all segments of society, young and old, that had never before been available.
However, this also turned out to be threatening for those who either did not experience the direct benefits of being part of the EU, or who saw their social and economic landscapes change at a pace they found too fast to be comfortable.
For example, in England and Wales, the most widely spoken language after English is now Polish, the speakers of which account for 1 percent of the 56.1 million residents of those two countries, which is similar to the number of those who speak Welsh. Add to this other widely spoken languages — such as Urdu, the many Indian languages and Bengali, as well as more than 140,000 Chinese speakers — and the result is that some communities have begun to feel uneasy about their country losing its national and local identities. This situation has been exacerbated by unscrupulous and opportunist politicians who are exploiting these fears to advance their own careers.
This is not to say that the EU as an institution does not carry some of the responsibility for the scepticism about its role and future development. It is too remote from those who are the subjects of its decisions, and who deserve more careful consideration. To lead the way and present a vision, the EU must progress at a pace whereby a critical mass of support within all its member states can be allowed to evolve.
It is not too late for the Brexit debate in the UK, and within Europe, to go back to the foundational precept of the EU, and why it so essential to fortify it. For all of the EU’s faults, no Brexit plan has proved to be either attractive or workable. Thus far we have witnessed a shallow, and in many cases dishonest, debate surrounding Brexit and this has not been confined to just one political party.
Both leavers and remainers could benefit from at least extending Article 50 for a further period of time. This might provide an opportunity to take a long, hard look at what Europe means to the UK, and vice versa, given the complex realities of the world in which we live.
Such a reasonable development of the debate might make remaining part of the European journey a more palatable proposition, even for those who initially supported Brexit.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.