🇬🇧 The Brexit Conundrum — Frank’s View

When I first came up with the idea for this project, soliciting guest posts from my readers in the UK and Canada offering their views of what is happening in their countries today, I had no idea it would elicit the wonderful response it has!  I am pleased today to offer another post from a UK reader that offers a slightly different tone and perspective than we have seen in either Roger’s or Colette’s excellent posts.  I don’t know about you guys, but I am learning so much from these posts — and the comments!  Please welcome today Frank Parker, a citizen of the UK living in Ireland.  Thank you, Frank!


Why Brexit is Impossible

My Perspective

I have been a proponent of the European ‘project’ ever since I was old enough to take an interest in national and international politics. I recall the UK’s repeated applications to join what was then the 6-member EEC in the early 1960s, and disappointment at our repeated rejection by France. In 1988 I became a founder member of the Liberal Democrats, having previously been a member of the Liberal Party. I served both parties as a councillor at county and district level. During that time, I had the opportunity to visit some of the EU institutions and to learn something about the way they operate.

Upon retirement, 13 years ago this month, I left the UK and came to live in Ireland. My son, his Irish wife and their daughter were already here. So, I am one of the approximately 3 million UK citizens domiciled in another EU country.

I believe passionately in the ideals that underpin the EU. In the years of the cold war it provided a bastion of political and economic strength against the might of the Soviet Union. Of course, NATO provided the military backing, but economic and political unity were, I believe, key components of the defence of Western civilisation against communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union it was important that the countries of Eastern Europe, released from the yoke of Russian domination, were welcomed into the EU and provided with the opportunity to realise the benefits of life in a free society.

There is far more, culturally and historically, that unites us than divides us.

We now face new threats, from climate change to the rise of China as a global power. European solidarity therefore remains a priority.

The European Union

The EU is first and foremost an international trading bloc. The Single Market ensures that goods traded between the member nations are produced to an agreed set of standards in circumstances that minimise the exploitation of workers. The Customs Union, by removing tariffs on goods traded between member nations, removes the need for customs barriers at the borders between those nations.

At the same time the UK is able to take advantage of free trade agreements reached between the EU and around 70 other nations in order to trade with them on favourable terms which will need to be renegotiated if the UK leaves.

In common with other members, the UK has secured exemptions from certain of the rules and regulations that enforce these standards. It is not a member of the Eurozone, retaining its own currency. It is not a member of Schengen, a scheme that facilitates visa free travel, residence and work throughout those nations that are signed up to it.

Instead, the UK, as a member of the Single Market, is obliged to permit freedom of movement of people for the purpose of work and education. This does not extend to the automatic right to social welfare payments. The citizens of one-member nation, whilst resident in another, must be economically self-supporting. If, after a reasonable period, they have not found a job they are obliged to leave. The UK government chose not to enforce this aspect of the legislation which many UK citizens were, and, it seems, still are unaware of.

Similarly, when Eastern European nations became members there was a transition period during which existing members were permitted to control the number of workers they accepted from those nations. Again, the UK government chose not to apply those controls, probably under pressure from business sectors, such as agriculture and hospitality, that saw an opportunity to exploit the availability of comparatively cheap labour to do jobs that UK citizens were unwilling to take on.

Sometimes such migrant workers were employed in breach of EU laws of which ordinary citizens were unaware so that, once again, the EU was blamed for creating conditions that were actually well within the ability of the UK government to control had it chosen to do so.

The Budget

The fundamental principle under which the EU budget operates is that the richest nations contribute and the poorest regions, some of which are within the richest nations, receive. The simple theory behind this is that by helping the poorer nations and regions to develop and, thereby, improve the economic welfare of their citizens, the possibility of conflict over resources is reduced. It is a principle with which not everyone agrees and is certainly one of the factors underlying the desire of some UK citizens to see the UK leave.

So long as it can be shown that supported schemes meet specific criteria, the way that EU funds are distributed and spent is left to the recipient national or local governments. Thus, it is unfair to blame the EU if such funds are used to support unnecessary or inappropriate schemes. They are intended to be used for social and economic infrastructure developments that increase the ability of the recipient region to attract private investment that creates long term employment. If you want the EU to exercise greater control over such spending you need more, not fewer bureaucrats, and to give up, not reclaim, local control.

The Exercise of Democracy

In most EU member states elections are conducted using systems that produce a result in which the number of representatives of each party in parliament or legislative assembly is roughly proportional to the number of votes cast for that party. This is also true of the EU institutions. The practical effect of this is that, more often than not, no one party has a parliamentary majority and two or more parties have to come together to agree a programme that is broadly in the national interest. That also tends to mean a centrist approach, either centre-left or centre-right. The extremes at either end of the political spectrum have little say. It should be no surprise that I, as a centrist, approve of such systems and the results they produce.

In the UK, however, the system regularly produces a majority for one party (not always the same party) even though that party may have fewer than 40% of the votes cast. Thus, the majority of UK citizens are used to a situation in which their needs are ignored in favour of those of a minority.

The 2016 referendum provided a rare opportunity in which they were assured, albeit dishonestly, that the wishes of the majority would be respected. It was presented as a simple choice between leaving or remaining, with the question of what kind of relationship, if any, the UK might seek to establish with the EU after it left, buried under a fog of speculation. In or out of the Customs Union? The Single Market? A relationship like the one Norway has? Or Switzerland?

The Irish Problem

This is something that was barely touched upon during the 2016 campaign but has proved to be an impenetrable stumbling block ever since. To understand why, it is necessary to review, however briefly, 850 years of British and Irish history and religion.

Around 100 years after the Norman conquest of England two childhood friends became respectively King of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. They disagreed about the extent to which the King should interfere in the affairs of the Church. At some point the king is supposed to have said something along the lines of “Will someone rid me of this troublesome priest.”

Like most such remarks uttered in moments of frustration it was not meant to be taken literally. But a few knights who wanted to curry favour with the king did. They murdered the Archbishop in his cathedral.

It so happened that the Pope was exercised about the fact that the Church authorities in Ireland were backsliding so, when an Irish provincial king was deposed, he used that fact to persuade the English (Norman) king to come to his aid. The king, needing to appease the Pope, agreed.

As a direct result, Ireland became subject to the English Crown, its land parcelled out to assorted knights and barons who had assisted with the invasion.

Move forward 4 centuries to the reformation and the long period of conflict in the British Isles between protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The Irish refused to be reformed, despite Cromwell’s massacre of tens of thousands and the confiscation of land from Catholic owners, giving it to protestants. These religious wars were effectively brought to an end when a Dutch Prince defeated a largely Catholic army on Irish soil and was crowned King. Troublesome tenants were removed from Scottish land to be replaced by sheep. They were granted large parts of Ulster in a further attempt to dilute Catholic influence on the island.

At the beginning of the 19th century Ireland, which had hitherto had a degree of autonomy but with its own Parliament still subject to the Crown, became a part of the United Kingdom. Throughout the next century the Irish campaigned for independence until, just under a hundred years ago, it was granted. But throughout the campaign the Ulster Protestants objected, so the treaty that granted independence drew an arbitrary border around 6 of Ulster’s 9 counties.

They would remain in the UK whilst the other 26 counties of Ireland became an independent republic. That division remained controversial, and a civil rights campaign in the 6 counties at the end of the 1960s escalated into widespread acts of terrorism on the island and within England.

This ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty, underwritten by the EU and the USA, which, among other things, enshrined the idea that citizens of the 6 counties have dual citizenship, able to choose to hold UK or Irish passports, and total freedom of movement of goods and people between the two parts of the island.

That is, of course, perfectly practical so long as both the UK and Ireland remain members of the EU. It is incompatible with the UK’s desire to leave the EU in order “to control our borders”.

There is a lot of talk about technological solutions, and the arrangement agreed in principle in December of 2017 was that, until those solutions are available, the 6 counties will remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union (the “backstop”).

It is this part of the Withdrawal Agreement, reached by Prime Minister May and the EU at the end of last year, that has failed to secure the support of a majority in Parliament. Prime Minister Johnson’s attempt to time limit the arrangement by giving the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote every 4 years is not acceptable to Ireland or the EU.

To me the only solution is one which involves the whole of the UK remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union, a relationship not unlike that which Norway and Switzerland have, and which would seem to meet the Labour Party’s “tests”. Or the UK could abandon the attempt to leave and return to the status quo.

20 thoughts on “🇬🇧 The Brexit Conundrum — Frank’s View

  1. It’s good having Frank’s view stretching back to the beginnings. When I was a child and the news always seemed to be talking about the ‘Common Market’ I pictured a street full of market stalls, would it were so simple. Then we went off to Australia when I was eleven so I never gave it another thought, but I gather teenagers at the time were excited at the prospect of travelling and working in Europe and disappointed every time France rejected us. When I came back to England at twenty I was just in time to vote in the first referendum. We had spent so much time trying to join my simple thought was vote was – Yes, we should stay. By the time of the 2016 referendum my thoughts were on a higher plane, every instinct and the future of our children and grandchildren said Remain; Frank’s informed explanations fill in the gaps in my knowledge!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Those of us from outside the UK have learned so much about this issue from these three guest posts! I’m glad I decided to do this little project … I still find it complex, but I understand more of the pros and cons now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Wednesday walkabout – October 9, 2019 | musingsofanoldfart

  3. Thank you Frank for the concise analytical view of the history and the current circumstances.
    As we can see from your post there is a great deal of difference between your precise and easy to ready prose and the hysterical headlines and ill-informed columns in the journals (I cannot call them newspapers).
    We may be able to get out of this morass in one piece but I fear the damage done socially and the self-immolation of our international reputation will take many years to repair.
    The only possible positive which can come out of this mess is a complete realignment of British politics to a centre-ground consensus style, but I fear(again) I am only dreaming.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Frank, well done. I have enjoyed all three thorough perspectives. I fear the finacial impact of Brexit and is assuming it is smooth and planned. A no-deal Brexit will make it far worse with an immediate impact, Regardless of what the UK does, it is apparent the hubris of Parliament has not served the British public very well. This is complicated with a prima donna PM who does not appreciate the hard work of planning. Of course, the US is not any better with the people in positions of leadership here. Keith

    Liked by 4 people

      • The economic consequences have been calculated and are very hard: GDP fall, inflation, economic crisis. And what surprises me most is the apparent apathy of the English. I would sleep in a duffle bag in front of 10 Downing St. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • Agreed … economically, it could spell disaster. Parliament is largely to blame, but Boris, Donnie’s twin, is allowing his ego to rule over his head. The same is true in this country, my friend … people are angry, but very few are even so much as bothering to write or call their representatives in Congress, and even fewer are actively protesting.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I have ultimately found that to be the major – unexpected -flaw of current democracy. And it goes with higher education: we analyze options (supposedly; I have a theory that most flip a coin) then elect/chose the “best” Administrator and forget about everything until the next election. There is a “manager” in charge, right?

            Like

  5. Like most political issues, it sounds like young kids trying to share a sand box, but never managing to do it for all, but just for some. As long as level heads do not prevail, nothing of consequence will ever be able to be done.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks, Frank, for this instructional post about the historical setting for Brexit. It’s a shame that the blowhards both within and outside of Parliament cannot enter into calm, intelligent dialogue and get this mess sorted.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. That is a very rounded view of history Frank. Why do you think Britain staying in the EU is so controversial? You intimate a number of policies that the British Government has failed to explain properly to the British people. I have certainly learned a few things from your piece. It is amazing how much one can learn with a bit of dialogue. It is a pity that our Government doesn’t operate on a similar level. Do you think that the EU would take Britain back into the fold without penalty? Or have we been the naughty child for too long. Certainly, Brexit proceedings have cost an absolute ton of money… Another thing that UK Taxpayers weren’t told!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Interestingly, I can actually apply for, and receive an Irish passport as my father and all his forebears were Irish Nationals. Whether I will would depend on a lot of circumstances, but I already have British and Canadian Citizenship… It is starting to get too complicated. 😊

      Liked by 3 people

    • Collette, I think the controversy is down to the mountain if half-truths that have been fed to the British public by the right wing (foreign owned) press over several decades. And the inability of the Remain camp to make a coherent case during the referendum campaign. It is much easier to sloganise criticism than to put forward a positive argument in tabloid language. If we are able to reverse the decision and actually stay in I don’t see why the EU would seek to ‘punish’ us. I think such language is also part of the problem, portraying the EU as the enemy, when in fact they are our friends and would probably be relieved by such a turn of events. Attempting to rejoin after we have left will almost certainly require us to accept less favourble terms than we currently have.

      Liked by 5 people

  8. Another excellent summation. Thanks to Frank, Colette, and Roger for enlightening us on what’s really going on with Brexit. We’ve heard three different views and all of them have merit. It seems overall though, all three would rather stay than leave. All have a grasp of the unique history of the region and why it’s such a divisive issue. But in the end, the uncertainty and chaos would seemingly be enough reason to stay, albeit with adjustments.
    Thank again to all of you, and to Jill of course for facilitating the discussion.

    Liked by 5 people

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