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Notes From an Island: One Year on from the Brexit Referendum

By Ray Cunningham

A year has now passed since the UK electorate voted, by a small majority, in favour of leaving the EU. And this anniversary coincides almost to the day with the opening of the formal negotiations between the UK and the remaining 27 Member States of the EU over the terms of the secession. What has happened over the course of that year? How much do we know now about the likely course of the negotiations, the shape of the final agreement, or the future relationship between the UK and the EU?

A disunited kingdom

The sobering truth is that hardly anything is clearer now than it was 12 months ago, and certainly less clear than it was one month ago. Among the many dramatic political repercussions of that vote was the UK general election fought out earlier this month, which resulted in the loss of the majority previously enjoyed by Theresa May’s Conservative government. As a result, the country is now led by a minority government with the probably unreliable and certainly morally questionable support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland; the Conservative party is in open disarray, with a Prime Minister so badly damaged that senior figures within her own party publicly refer to her as a ‘dead woman walking’; but there is no obvious successor as leader, nor is there an obvious alternative government that would command the support of the parliament, much less of the country. The legislative programme for the new government has abandoned the Prime Minister’s trademark policies for fear of defeat, and is dominated by the technical legislation necessary to enable Brexit – yet without a clear sense of the direction which the newly ‘independent’ country will take. Despite Theresa May’s brave assertion when announcing the ‘snap’ election that the country was ‘coming together’, most polls and commentaries reveal a country more divided than ever before, with voters entrenching themselves deeper in their almost numerically equal ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ camps, and no serious attempt to establish a consensus camp (but then, there’s not much room for consensus between ‘in’ and ‘out’). This recent newspaper article sums up well the confusion of the British position.

Weimar Britain or ‘Ukania’?

The referendum has revealed at a stroke, as nothing had done for a generation before, not only the stark social divisions within the UK – between rich and poor (we are talking about the most unequal large country in Europe, by some distance), young and old, urban and rural, skilled and unskilled – but also the regional and national divisions, and the constitutional flaws and pressure points. The characteristics of this fragmentation – from a distance, it can seem like a polarisation into two camps, but reveals itself on closer inspection to be more complex – have led some to draw an analogy between present-day Britain and Weimar Germany. But this seems to me an unhelpful analogy, given that a key feature of the political culture of Weimar Germany was a powerful, forward-looking, but thwarted nationalism, largely shared across the political divides but unable to find any legitimate form of expression, whereas the nationalism behind the Brexit referendum is located more on one side of the divide, and is characterised by a bitter, backward-looking nostalgia for lost power and status. In this respect, and in the ubiquitous symbols of past glory and present decline of a hollow constitution awaiting only a single sharp blow to bring the edifice tumbling down, surely the UK today is instead more like ‘Ukania’ – the term coined for modern Britain by Tom Nairn, the Scottish writer on nationalism, by analogy with Robert Musil’s term ‘Kakania’ for the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire before the First World War. A multi-national ‘imperial’ state, dominated by two neighbouring traditional enemies yoked uncomfortably together, with the larger of the two drawn irresistibly towards another, much larger linguistic rival/relative (respectively, Germany and the USA), and with constitutional arrangements totally inadequate for dealing with its internal tensions and the political challenges of the time. The blow that toppled the Habsburg empire was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the ‘Yugoslav nationalist’ Gavrilo Princip. After the First World War, a much smaller Austria was condemned to decline, absorption, and then relative insignificance over the next fifty years, eventually and slowly reclaiming a role on the wider international stage not least because of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and its accession to the European Union in 1994.

Many people predicted that Brexit might precipitate Scottish independence, though that now looks less likely in the short term. However, the struggles of Theresa May’s government are now throwing an unexpected light on other historic constitutional peculiarities of ‘Ukania’, such as the status of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, and one of these might just prove to be the UK’s Sarajevo (though I hasten to add that I am not predicting, much less calling for, a Gibraltarian Gavrilo Princip, but rather foreseeing a convulsive constitutional crisis). Might England then become the Austria of the 21st century?

Has Brexit saved the EU?

While it is barely an exaggeration to say that the UK looks like it is descending into chaos, the EU – by contrast – is looking noticeably more united since the UK referendum vote than it did before. The continued advance of populist, Eurosceptic, or openly Europhobic parties, which many feared (and some hoped) would be invigorated by the British Brexit vote, seems to have been halted, to judge by the recent successes of avidly pro-EU candidates and parties in Austria, the Netherlands, and France. The prospect of the anti-EU ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ achieving any real impact in the coming German elections seems to have receded, and France’s new President Macron looks set to re-boot the Franco-German EU engine in partnership with the incoming German Chancellor; whether that turns out to be Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz, both are committed Europhiles. Indeed, there may well be a causal connection between the contrasting situations of the UK and the EU: it is possible that the Brexit vote in the UK acted as a form of shock therapy against the spread of Euroscepticism across the rest of Europe, reminding people that a lazy and self-indulgent vote against the EU can have real and probably unwanted consequences. This argument was expressed well in a recent article by the French political commentator Jean Quatremer.

The parting of the ways?

Given these contrasting starting points, it is hard to foresee the UK “having its cake and eating it”, as the British Foreign Secretary summed up his own aspirations. It seems more likely that the EU will be able to insist that secession from the Union cannot mean keeping all of the advantages of membership. So although the shape of the future relationship is not clear in detail, it seems more likely than before that it will be either a clearly isolated position for the UK or one which involves a messy, unsatisfactory British compromise designed to minimise the inevitable further internal political damage – i.e. in trade terms, a variant of Norway’s European Economic Area deal, Switzerland’s customised free-trade package with the EU, or Turkey’s membership in the customs union (see the first article linked above). In political and cultural terms, the referendum then clearly signals a decisive divergence in the pathways of the EU and the UK. The hopes of many in the UK that membership of a wider European project would inevitably lead to a reform and modernisation of the British constitution and political culture in a more European direction have now been dashed, and instead the island is reverting to a pre-1973 outlook which the Brexiteers label as ‘more international’ but which feels like a last, desperate attempt to claw back Britain’s long-departed status as the hub of international maritime trade and a colonial empire. This brave march backwards chimes in with Theresa May’s desire to revert to a model of secondary education based on the 1950s and to simply ignore the realities of UK constitutional devolution since the 1990s.

The potential impact of Brexit on the prospects for a green transition in Europe

All of this poses fundamental challenges which are much bigger than trade policy, or than whether the UK remains in the Single Market or the customs union. It is a challenge to the idea of Europe, of pooled sovereignty, and even of internationalism – or more accurately of post-nationalism. For Greens, it raises the question of whether the green transition which must be the central aim of all green policy is best achieved one country at a time or through concerted international action. Paradoxically, given Britain’s role in hampering and slowing down many areas of green EU policy coordination in the past, Brexit might conceivably enable the rest of the EU to make faster progress. It is even possible (and this would be even more paradoxical) that it might enable a radical transformation of British trade and environmental policy in a green direction, one that would reverse in some respects what the architects of Brexit thought they were achieving (for a detailed set of policy recommendations that would bring this about, see the study published by Molly Scott Cato, the British Green MEP, on ‘Brexit and Trade’).

Post-Brexit England – the Austria of the 21st century?

As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, perhaps this is a good moment to consider in a little more detail the implications of the analogy between Austria-Hungary and ‘Ukania’ suggested above.

The Great War sparked by the assassination in Sarajevo re-drew the map of Europe, and this re-casting included the dissolution of the Empire of Austria-Hungary, one of the Great Powers of the preceding century. The multi-national Empire was split into a series of successor states representing its two largest nations, Austria and Hungary, and the smaller constituent parts (including Czecho-Slovakia, the Second Polish Republic, and the states later to become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia).

Austria, the dominant cultural and political entity within the former Empire, then failed in its plan to fuse with its geographical and cultural neighbour, the German Republic. In 1938, it was forcibly annexed by the Nazi state that had taken over the Weimar German Republic (the ‘Anschluss’), and it suffered World War 2, defeat and devastation as a part of the Nazi Third Reich. In the long postwar period, it then found itself relegated to a political backwater, without a seat at the table, its international reputation now that of an irrelevant former power living on the faded glories of its imperial palaces and other tourist attractions. Gradually, it found a new international role as a bridge between East and West, and since the collapse of the Iron Curtain it has achieved a real international ‘Anschluss’ (‘connection’) again through its membership  of the European Union, which it joined in 1995.

Now, all historical analogies are potential traps – history doesn’t repeat itself, and a coincidental similarity in circumstances can lead too easily to far-flung parallels and distorted conclusions. But that is not to say that all historical comparisons are false. Such a comparison can throw unexpected light on confusing developments, and can help one to see the bigger picture often obscured by detail. And it seems to me that the comparison with Austria in the early 20th century allows one to see the danger of the way England might be heading in the early 21st. Here, too, we have a fast-fading imperial power, the dominant nation within a multinational state (again, one founded principally on a loose union with one large neighbour and a number of fractious smaller provinces) which is collapsing internally but which still maintains the outward semblance and trappings of former power. Again, there is an ambivalent relationship to a larger, culturally related power (the USA), which is sometimes seen as a potential salvation and sometimes as a potential devourer of the fast-diminishing ‘older brother’. Again, we have an ageing monarch on the throne, propping up an increasingly ludicrous, increasingly theatrical end-of-the-pier monarchy; and a widespread uneasy sense that, when she goes, the whole gameshow might go with her.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] The Green European Foundation is organising a transnational project on “The potential implications of Brexit for the green transition in Europe”, including a series of events in the participating countries.

Notes From an Island: One Year on from the Brexit Referendum