Yesterday, I shared Roger’s guest post, his views and thoughts on the current state of the United Kingdom in the age of Brexit. As promised, today I am sharing our friend Colette’s thoughts and views. Thank you, Colette, for helping us to understand just a little bit better what is happening in your country and how you came to be where you are.
How to describe the mess in UK politics?
One word – Brexit!
OK that is self-explanatory but doesn’t really address the issues. While the history of our troubled partnership in the EU goes back much further, today’s Brexit hinges on David Cameron’s term as the Conservative prime minister. In 2013, Cameron approached the EU with a series of issues he wanted resolved to ensure that Britain wasn’t being used as just a revolving door of finance and payouts and basically a drop-in zone for every migrant wanting to take advantage of Britain’s free health care, and family benefits. He promised the UK taxpayer, in his ‘Bloomberg Speech’ that he would succeed in getting certain concessions (a boast to intimidate EU leaders that he would later regret), or he would give the general public, a referendum on an ‘in’ or ‘out’ vote on EU membership. I have simplified what he asked for, and what he got here…
- “Limit the access of union workers newly entering its labour market to in-work benefits for a total period of up to four years from the commencement of employment” The EU allowed for a one year only period. Cameron felt that supposed migrant workers freely flowing into Britain, were quickly finding ways to go straight onto Britain’s social benefits programs, with payouts for unemployment, and accommodation and living expenses for each member of the family. It was becoming a huge taxpayer burden
- Cameron wanted UK left out of financial ‘bailouts’ for other EU countries in the Euro zone or beyond it. As the UK kept the British pound, it felt it had never signed up to the financial solidarity with other EU countries. Cameron won this point.
- Working time directives come straight from Brussels. The UK wanted autonomy on setting working times for doctors, etc. Cameron failed to get this. The EU insists on setting all work hours, etc.
- The 2015 Conservative manifesto said, “If an EU migrant’s child is living abroad, then they should receive no child benefit, no matter how long they have worked in the UK and no matter how much tax they have paid.” Cameron did not want to pay benefits to EU workers for their dependent children if they lived in another EU country. Britain’s benefit payments were much higher than in other Member States. While he fought for Britain not to have to pay for the (often) large dependent families abroad, he won only the concession to pay them the equivalent of their home country benefit plans, but on a four-year sliding scale that would eventually bring them up to the UK payment rates after four years anyway.
- There was an issue with sham marriages (for people to get in to the UK). I actually heard about a few of these bogus cases from a lawyer friend of mine who works for the Home Office. The cases were truly shocking … and these people are difficult to deport. They were not just from the EU, but from all sorts of countries. Cameron wanted EU legislation to stop it. He got a bit of rhetoric, but in essence, nothing has changed from the EU perspective.
- An agreement that if, proportionately speaking, 55 percent of national EU parliaments object to a piece of EU legislation “within 12 weeks” the Council Presidency will hold a “comprehensive discussion” on the objections raised and “discontinue the consideration of the draft legislative… unless the draft is amended to accommodate the concerns expressed in the reasoned opinions”. (p13 of draft agreement). Cameron sort of got a part concession on this but in reality, it doesn’t happen. Brussels is in firm control, and other Member States don’t have a lot of sway.
- “It is recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union.” It also promises to incorporate this in the EU treaties next time they are opened. Donald Tusk gave this concession to the UK on an ‘Ever Closer Union.’ The EU continues to squeeze its member States into full and uncompromised adherence of Brussels dictates. Britain does not want to be drawn in on ever increasing EU political dominance.
- “To seek increased powers to bolster UK defences to “stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.” This was intended as a method to bring forward a defendant’s’ related past history in terrorism trials. The legislation remained unchanged by Brussels. Past history could not be used.
- Cameron wanted member States to be able to hold on to their own currencies and not be forced into using the ‘Euro,’ but won no concessions on this. (My take on this is that if Greece had been allowed to move away from the Euro, huge bailouts would not have been necessary. Basically, Germany does very well on its exports as the Euro creates a level playing field with much poorer nations. If it used the Deutschmark as currency its exports would fail as too expensive for anyone else. It wants all its member States to use the Euros currency).
David Cameron did not get what he wanted, so he decided, in the face of his critics that he would take it to the people with the promised Referendum.
He never, in a million years thought that the vote in his conciliatory referendum would be ‘to leave.’ It shocked all of Parliament, not to mention the media.
The press and a lot of politicians believe that people didn’t understand that they would be leaving without any deal. I don’t really think that is true. It was a simple yes or no vote.
Why did the majority vote to leave? A number of issues do bother Brits. Our fishing industry collapsed as a result mostly of Spanish trawlers, but French too, coming into our waters and depleting the fish stocks to decimated numbers. Just this last month a huge East European Super Trawler has been seen in British waters off the South Coast. This thing is huge and drags nets 600 x 200 metres in size, through our waters, taking everything. Our fishermen are beside themselves with fury over this. Many years of trying to get fish stocks to recover are shot to hell as the Super Trawler takes everything in one fell swoop and then moves on to other waters. We have no power to stop this.
EU rules dictate a lot of things to how UK farms are run. There are farmers on both sides of the ‘in’ or ‘out’ debate, dependent largely on where their export market lies. Certainly, British farmers spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to gear their operations to EU dictates. All vegetables and fruits must be of a standardised size which is quite ridiculous. Anything smaller or bigger, has to find a different export market, be fed to animals or simply go to waste. And, we cannot for instance, stop ‘Live Exports’ of animals (a particularly gruesome experience for animals in journeys of days in cramped lorries all over Europe and beyond) as the EU dictates animals must be able to ship over EU borders without hindrance. Britain has already said that it will stop all live export when it leaves the EU (and will address the issues of the super trawlers too). Some manufacturers who export mostly outside the EU, want to leave, while those who rely on export to EU countries don’t. There are a few people (mainly the unemployed) in Northern counties who saw a migrant workforce (many Polish) taking lower pay for agricultural jobs. The disenchanted amongst them see immigration as changing traditional English values and taking jobs. They are a small number who feel this way, but the press coverage certainly portrayed immigration as a major sticking point (mainly with the fires of the anti-immigration rhetoric fanned by Nigel Farage).
The UK has become strong in the Service sector which is also true of Eire and that is directly a result of EU membership. American companies, like Google and Amazon use the footholds of the UK and Eire to do business within the EU block. If we leave the EU, there will be a few companies who move elsewhere to gain a better advantage.
On the positive side of staying in the EU. There is free movement across all EU countries, there is no border control on goods and there are no additional import taxes. Goods can travel freely to any member state. Britain does export to member states but only imports a portion of its goods from member states. The vast majority of goods come from other places. Also, people from any EU country can cross country borders with full autonomy (and without passport controls once arrived on the European mainland and within EU borders). People can travel freely and participate in the education system and find jobs in the EU block without penalty.
Of course, Cameron was a coward and walked away, resigning after the referendum decision, sighting that he did not believe in separating from the EU so could not negotiate it.
Meanwhile, in the Labour opposition Party, things were not too rosy. Jeremy Corbyn had been elected as leader after the resignation of Ed Milliband when David Cameron won a second term as Prime Minister in 2015. Corbyn was an extreme hard leftist totally unlike Blair, Brown and Milliband predecessors who were centre left. The party almost had a meltdown as the cabinet was made up from backbenchers who reflected the hard left model. Some MP’s disappeared altogether, having lost their seats (like the former, rather likeable, Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor). The party itself, even today is very split on issues, including Brexit. They are also beset with some rather contentious racist extremism which they are having a tough time stamping out with a leader who refuses to do anything much about it. Corbyn also initially supported Brexit but is now soft peddling his own game of resistance in the hopes that he will become Prime Minister in the next election. He is rattling the cage, but he does not have full support of his own party, nor of every traditional labourite voter. He sways all over the place on his decision making, leaving supporters frustrated.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have lost elected members of Parliament to other political parties or to become independent Members of Parliament with no affiliation. This further dilutes the vote and the next election is unlikely to elect a clear winner.
There are lots of issues about Brexit that are too numerous to go into (needs a book), but Teresa May took over from David Cameron and despite her position as a ‘remainer’ she tried to deliver Brexit with the best of both worlds. To give us back some autonomy over our laws while remaining in a free trade agreement in ‘The Single Market’ exchange of goods. This operates within the EU ‘Customs Union,’ a block of countries who agree on the political rules and trade rules and taxation, etc., but Britain is negotiating to leave the Customs Union while maintaining a relationship in the ‘Single Market,’ for free movement of our exports and imports. This is ‘the deal’ and meant to keep the movement of people and goods open.
The EU have played hard ball with us. They do not like making concessions that may set up precedents for other member States to try to get similar ‘special treatment.’ They have basically always said ‘rules is rules and we will not break them for one member-state.’ However, at the same time, they do not want to lose a large financial partner like Britain. Despite its tiny geographical size, Britain has a large GDP output making it one of the wealthiest states. The EU membership fees are commensurate with the financial state of each member. So small members like Eastern bloc countries, Greece, etc, pay a much smaller amount in fees, but receive equal portions of distributed benefits.
So, our exit deal (and God knows what it is as we have never really got a good look at it) has been turned down in an increasingly fractious, divided Parliament which is tearing itself asunder over lies, misinformation and some whipped up fever by the ever-speculative media.
The main sticking point is the Irish Backstop. This seems to have most Brits kerfuzzled, let alone anyone abroad. My sister (a staunch Labour supporter all her life) didn’t know what it meant (and is probably still confused).
Basically, Northern Ireland is part of the UK and operates under UK laws and jurisdictions. Southern Ireland, or Eire, is autonomous and independent as a country since the 1916 Easter uprising that saw the division of the North and South and separation from British Rule. We had a long period known as ‘The Troubles’ which resulted in a lot of bloodshed in Northern Ireland. The IRA (Irish Republican Army) also set some of its bombing targets on the UK mainland with consequent casualties in cities. I won’t go into all that (messy religion and politics) but essentially, in 1998, the Good Friday agreement for peace was signed, mostly putting a stop to the fractious behaviour between Irish Catholics and Irish/British Protestants. The border between the Irish countries, was open for free movement and British soldiers disappeared from the various border checks. And along with that, the bombing and killing stopped. Clicking on this link will take you to an interactive map with all the border points and the documented violence.
The Irish Backstop (the reintroduction of customs checks either on a hard, or soft border) in the Brexit agreement is a real threat to keeping the Peace Accord in place. The EU will not allow a ‘deal’ that does not put a customs border in place to stop the transfer of goods between Northern Ireland and Eire so they want border checks on goods (like live sheep that might move from Northern Ireland to Eire). No one but the EU wants this.
Boris Johnson has said Northern Ireland will come out of the Customs Union (along with the UK) but will retain the right to govern its own ‘single market’ agreement with the EU and can revisit it every 4 years. This does not get around the problem with the EU wanting border checks.
It isn’t a huge change, but it puts the control of the outcomes of any borders in the hands of a Northern Ireland. It has made the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, happy. It has not made the Prime Minister of Eire happy. Nor has it made Corbyn happy, so there will be more fighting in Parliament ahead. The EU have seen this as slightly positive moving forward on Brexit negotiations but are not really saying whether they approve of it in its entirety at this point in time. And time is running out.
There are plenty of backstories about the Characters of Johnson and Corbyn, but basically, both are pretty narcissistic and belligerent people. Other political characters are narcissistic and belligerent too, including Farage and his centre right Brexit Party. Richard Braine, leader of the failing far right Ukip party (previously led by Nigel Farage, but having become a racist party, he stepped away from it) is not a real contender.
Corbyn and Labour is now making noises that they would support a second ‘Brexit’ referendum.
The young Jo Swinson, leader of the centrist Liberal party, who is absolutely against Brexit on any level is also fighting with a minority, though growing number of Voters. She will keep Britain in the EU.
The hard-left Green Party, led by Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley is gaining momentum but unlikely to make majority gains. It is usually quite low on voter choices. They generally are currently fighting on Environmental platform and will also call for a second referendum on Brexit.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) led by Nicola Stergeon, wants to stay in the EU, but is also fighting for Scotland to become Independent, breaking the 400-Yr union with England.
The Welsh Assembly have generally indicated that it will go with a deal to leave the EU, but it has concerns about a no-deal Brexit.
There are many who would prefer not to leave the EU for a variety of personal reasons, but even many former remainers are now committed to leaving as the road back looks quite fraught with problems. Not least of them is the fact that if (and it is an ‘if’) the EU takes us back as a member, we will lose much of our bargaining power, and we can never trigger an article 50 mandate to leave at any time in the future. We will have shot our one arrow and missed spectacularly. I don’t think the EU will ever give us enough rope again that we can hang ourselves with.
If we do exit the EU, and worst-case scenario, with no deal, the country will go to an election. That will not have a clear-cut outcome.
And there, you have it. Clear as mud!
Brits will survive without an EU partnership, but it won’t be easy. Companies who use the UK for services to connect them to the EU will go elsewhere, but despite some initial hardships, and needing to resource import supplies from other non-EU countries, the UK will rebound, its currency will not suffer for long, and it will remain as a place full of hard working people as it always has been. We just have to be self-sufficient, and that isn’t the end of the world.
Britain leaving the EU with a deal, will at least have some easier trading, but won’t have to follow EU politics, fiscal dictates, or tightening rules.
Britain remaining in the EU, will have to follow the tightening rules, pay even more into the ‘pot’ and I would not discount the idea that they would insist on us taking on the EU currency eventually.