The great Brexit farce has begun

Published by The i paper (27th March, 2017)

There is a simplistic clarity to any act of insurgency. Rebellions can bring together armies of malcontents with very different views of the world, united only by dislike of the status quo as they march together behind slogans and banners to overthrow an established order. Yet as history shows, the sweetness of victory so often turns sour as reality intrudes on revolutionary fervour: allies start fighting among themselves, fanatics force aside moderates and autocrats reassert control.

So will the Brexit uprising devour its children as utopian dreams turn to dust? It is, of course, too early to tell – although clearly this nationalist uprising fuelled by fear and intolerance will change the shape of our nation irrevocably. This week, nine months after the referendum shock, Article 50 is finally triggered to signal Britain’s departure from the European Union. Yet behind the careful choreography of the prime minister’s letter to the European Council and statement to parliament, it is hard to think of another time when our country has taken such a massive gamble with so many unresolved questions hanging heavy over our heads.

Yes, we know a few things about the future of our relationship with the Europe as we hurtle towards the Brexit precipice. Sadly they are all damaging to national interests: dropping out of the single market, abandoning the customs union, ending free movement. These became imperatives after Theresa May opted to interpret last year’s ballot as a vote against immigration rather than merely against Brussels. So at best Britain faces rock-hard Brexit, to dismay of most experts and major businesses.

Already we begin to see the impact, even before formal discussions kick off. Banks transferring staff, food prices rising, foreign workers returning home, nurses leaving hospitals, airlines warned to move headquarters, renewed talk of Scottish separatism, a black hole looming in public finances. Something as silly as shrinking chocolate bars can symbolise the stupidity of these self-inflicted wounds at a time when our leaders should be focusing on so many other pressing domestic and global issues. Instead they start these needless negotiations with hands tied behind backs and a clock ticking, which is a terrible basis to achieve a decent deal.

More than a dozen working parties in Brussels have been preparing grounds for divorce, backed by review bodies set up in every European capital, while hastily-created departments in Whitehall have been busily recruiting key staff. The path ahead is torturous, involving almost 21,000 laws and regulations impacting on every industrial, service and public sector. These range from major issues over health cover, migration, security and visas through to the mind-boggling minutiae of business rules, consumer protection and environmental regulation. One key Whitehall insider confessed they were ‘rather overwhelmed’ by the complexity.

Yet with tragic irony, this mission to ‘take back control’ will convert EU laws and directives though use of feudal powers under a 1539 statute permitting a Tudor monarch to govern by proclamation. So much for sovereignty of the people; May plans to mimic Henry VIII. This underscores the denial of proper democratic controls over this process – and the fraudulent nature of so many claims made by self-serving Leave campaigners with their shape-shifting Brexit stances.

The government, stashing away billions to prepare for Brexit, has been told price of departure might be €60bn. Brussels insiders warn the sum might be even higher. Even if negotiated down, bang goes hope of extra NHS billions promised to voters. Meanwhile Britain may have to bribe Brussels to get single market access for key sectors such as finance and car manufacturing. All other firms trading in Europe will still be subject to community rules, over which we are abandoning influence. And now we learn the government has plans to allow EU migrants to continue getting benefits post-Brexit.

Already this feels like a farce, even before May sends her fateful letter. Bear in mind that Brussels has vested interest in ensuring our life is not made too comfortable to compel others to stay in the club. And every line of every deal, every bilateral treaty, must be signed off by 27 other nations each with their own commercial interests and political undercurrents. Five months ago we saw a Belgian regional parliament stymie a major European free-trade deal seven years in the making with Canada.

No wonder there is growing talk of ‘dirty Brexit’, the worst possible result in which no trading deal made by the 2019 departure date. Already the electorate is being softened up for such an explosive outcome, with foreign secretary Boris Johnson claiming this would be ‘perfectly OK’. He can, of course, afford sharp price rises that would follow instant imposition of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Many of his fellow citizens might find this more of a struggle, especially those losing jobs in the consequent economic shock waves.

Johnson is fed up with people ‘moaning and droning about the state of the world’, saying that ‘when I hear them warn that the sky is about to fall on our heads I feel like saying come off it sunshine.’ Like him, I am an optimist and believe in the brilliance of human progress. But as we stand on brink of Brexit, it hard not to be engulfed by pessimism as we see the emerging implications of his insurgency. As the great George Orwell said, ‘nine times out of ten a revolutionary is merely a climber with a bomb in his pocket.’ Slowly but surely, we see this truth again.

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