image of jerusalem 2016

Brexit: Haste Makes Waste?
Goodbye David Cameron and welcome Theresa May! This is the reality of where we are in the House of Commons today as the Conservative Party acted with remarkable political celerity and replaced the man who represented the future once with the woman who is the future today - whose “Brexit is Brexit” leaves the door open for multiple interpretations.

22 July   |   2016   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Our new PM has already met Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France and it is becoming clearer that the real business of triggering Article 50 and kick-starting the negotiations in earnest will not occur till the end of the year or in early 2017. In so doing, the prime minister has shown that she respects the choice of Leavers in a way that also understands the fears of Remainers. Moreover, it is equally clear that the EU Club is slowly coming to terms with the outcome of the EU Referendum and is willing to negotiate with the UK despite its many valid reservations as well as the fact that Boris Johnson is our Foreign Minister.

For the moment, though, just before Parliament goes into its summer recess, I would argue that PM Theresa May has moved beyond the bruised Platonic or Aristotelian discernments of democracy and is showing initial signs of leadership. So let me propose a few start-up thoughts that might well help with future negotiations as much as preserve the unity of our British Isles and safeguard our economy without weakening further the geostrategic stability of the EU.

  • The ‘Regrexit’ petition that attracted around 4 million signatures as well as the ‘Marches for Europe’ in London, York and elsewhere are important indications of frustration and despondency by those who lost the referendum. But they are also a deeper symptom of the pent-up anger in many segments of our society that goes back at least to the banking crisis of 2008 if not to 2003 and impacts those who feel let down by the Establishment.
  • However, this referendum is not binding and only has a persuasive impact on politicians’ minds. Remember: there were 16 million Remainers (48% of voters) who wanted to stay in the EU and it is therefore unsurprising that they expect their voices to be audible too. It is also a fact that the EU Referendum cannot impinge upon the decisions of Parliament which remains sovereign. As such, and much as it is an important indication of the will of the majority, politicians should work with this referendum - debate it in the House, vote on it and enrobe it with parliamentary legal validity through legislation - in order to allow the negotiations to start in earnest without being fixated by ideological and historical attitudes.
  • The outcome of the vote and the attendant commentaries show that both the UK and the EU remain dyslexic over our role within the EU27. We in the UK are politically bipolar in that we want our cake and we want to eat it too. However, I would suggest that the four freedoms upon which the EU was founded - namely movement of goods, capital, labour and services - cannot be obviated from the European treaties simply to accommodate our UK wishes. But I remain quite convinced - as do many European colleagues - that we are stronger together and should work around those four F’s deftly and creatively. After all, they are not etched in stone.
  • The EU buzzword last century was ‘integration’. Now, with the populist European anger across many countries against those ruling elites who are perceived to live in bubbles (which is not entirely untrue), the new buzzword is ‘disintegration’. So how do we keep this huge economic (yes, it is still strong) and political (yes, it remains strong) Group of (theoretically but not yet practically) 27 Member-States together without disassembling all ties between the UK and Brussels? Simply parroting that ‘we are staying in Europe but are exiting the EU’ is not mere pedantry but rather a barren tool of sophistry. We should apply ourselves to the negotiating task of implementing the social and political brakes on the unfettered freedom of movement without turning its engine off entirely. It is perhaps by recalling - as the PM seems to suggest - that “haste is waste”.
  • In my opinion, and once PM Theresa May (for it is her favour, not that of the triumvirate at Chevening House in Kent) is ready to cross the Rubicon, out best option would be to forge an agreement that comes close to the European Economic Area (EEA) that countries like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have applied in their relations with the EU. (Switzerland is another option, but it is neither an EU nor an EEA member, although part of the Single Market). Otherwise put, we should explore whether ‘integration without representation’ would allow us to exit the EU formally but stay within a Single Market. It also admits the principle of freedom of movement whilst applying the emergency brakes on immigration available within the EU Treaty to cases of social or economic destabilisation.

What about any impact of this decision on the MENA region?

A few analysts from the UK as much as the EU as well as the MENA, have opined that the opportunities to work on peace, rule of law or human rights could diminish with an exit and that UK relations with North Africa could end up being de-prioritised whilst trade relations with the wealthier Gulf would become stronger. Quite possible, but one key barometer for me remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, the EU is the biggest donor to Palestine as well as its largest trade partner. It is also a member of the [largely numb] Quartet. The UK would be able to contribute its views, as Norway does, but its influence would be less effective when faced with an EU common position.

This rationale also applies to development issues where the shifts in post-Brexit politics and the extent of economic constraints would mean that the EU as a bloc has unrivalled economic weight and development clout. It is better placed to focus on issues of human rights and international law than individual member states.

Ever since 23rd June, I keep hearing from politicians and advocates of one camp or the other that it is not possible to tailor an agreement that would benefit both the UK and the EU. I am told time and again that all Brits do not want to work with the EU and that the Europeans are equally peeved with us. I am sufficiently long in the tooth to dispute this blanket pessimism if good will exists within both camps. After all, an exit from the Single Market would be ironic when one recalls that the UK in fact helped put the Single Market together many decades ago just as it encouraged the freedom of movement into the EU from former Soviet republics. I recall those arguments for and against freedom of movement from East Europe. Some EU member-states were even convinced then that the UK was lobbying for this right not for the sake of an enshrined principle but simply in its effort to dilute the effectiveness of the core movement.

Much of Europe today faces giddying challenges that the recent attack in Nice and the attempted putsch in Turkey have highlighted to all and sundry. Europe simply cannot be run by the mystic apes or governed by sour grapes. Leavers and Remainers can opt to stay cloistered in their own echo chambers and talk over each other whilst polarising their citizens and pushing the frontiers of populism and xenophobia to higher levels. Or, in the words of the constitutional expert Tom Dalyell, politicians can ‘have balls’ to negotiate a middle-of-the-road deal that mirrors the close outcome of the referendum, preserves our social cohesion plus national interests without forfeiting our future hopes or freedoms. And - critically - nobody should ignore the younger generations who voted overwhelmingly to stay and move freely in Europe and whose hopes for their own tomorrow should not be checkmated by our choices today.

In the final analysis, the UK and EU should think hard whether it is better for neighbours to live together in a semi-detached edifice or whether detachment is the solution. The referendum is one paradigm but it is not the whole answer.

This piece appeared in an earlier unedited version in NOW Lebanon on 11 July 2016. The image I am using today is “The Questioning Man” by the sculptor Michael Alfano.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2016   |   22 July


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