by Frank Schnittger
Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 08:09:30 PM EST
Some observers have been puzzled at how the UK's Brexit stance has grown gradually more hard line, even before the beginning of formal negotiations, and as their expectations of EU disarray and confusion have failed to materialize. Brexit campaigners were quite explicit that the UK wouldn't be leaving the Single Market or Customs Union during the referendum campaign. Now both are becoming unchallengeable Government orthodoxy even though the people were never asked to vote on that basis. Even the Labour opposition has meekly accepted this moving of the goal posts.
Fintan O'Toole has a perceptive and amusing take on this:
Brexit resurrects the English cult of heroic failure
Listening to Theresa May's big Brexit speech last week, I remembered that the English have a taste for heroic failure. Their favourite poem, Rudyard Kipling's If, says that triumph and disaster are the same thing. It also enjoins the English to "lose, and start again at your beginnings/And never breathe a word about your loss."
Brexit is a perfect vehicle for this zombie cult. It fuses three of the archetypes of heroic English failure.
There is the last stand, exemplified by Gen George Gordon at Khartoum, another fiasco that quickly became a byword for heroism in the face of inevitable disaster: Brexit is imperial England's last last stand.
There is the suicidal cavalry charge [as in the Charge of the Light Brigade]: May hilariously threatened Europe that if it does not play nice, she and Boris will destroy its economic artillery with their flashing sabres.
And there is the doomed expedition into terra incognita to find a promised land. This kind of heroic failure is exemplified by Sir John Franklin's fatal search for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.
Little matter that the EU's response has been one of bemused wonderment to date. No one was threatening the UK's position within the EU, and repeated attempts to renegotiate the UK's terms of membership were met with meek accommodation. No one was going out of their way to provoke the English into a more hard line position. The referendum result was studiously respected.
There have been no threats of swingeing import tariffs, even though Sterling devaluation has damaged the competitiveness of EU exporters. Six Irish Mushroom growers with hundreds of jobs have already gone out of business in direct consequence. The English seem determined to go out and explore the Terra Incognita of trade agreements around the world which the EU has been unable to negotiate. Good luck to them.
Theresa May appears to have decided that the first order of business is to appease her hard right, and almost no attempt has been made to prepare the way for a conciliatory EU response. Expect howls of protest when EU leaders do the same and resist making concessions for fear of energising their domestic hard right opponents. They will be accused in the UK media of playing politics and plotting revenge at some perceived slight. Just what do on earth does the media think the UK has been doing?
Brexiteers seem convinced that the EU is a paper tiger which will just fold when confronted with the powerful logic of the UK's position. They point to the growth of Eurosceptic parties throughout Europe and genuinely seem to believe they are getting out just before the corrupt edifice of the EU collapses. They are encouraged by Trump's blatant agenda to destroy the EU, the USA's largest competitor. They see the UK as a major player in a geo-political game to reconfigure the political and economic world order with London becoming the European Singapore and centre of the financial universe. Apparently the EU won't be able to function without them.
Meanwhile most EU leaders are biding their time and waiting for A. 50 to be triggered. It is almost like the "phoney war" where all is "quiet on the western front" before the beginning of formal hostilities in the A. 50 negotiation process. In some fevered imaginations, this may come to be reminiscent of World War II with the UK holding out against a German dominated Europe. Merkel doesn't appear particularly keen on reprising that role, but I can't see eastern European Member states being particularly keen to appease the UK given that their citizens are the primary target of the Brexit campaign.
This drama has the potential to raise all sorts of ghosts from Europe's murky past, but the Europe of 2017 is not the same as the Europe of 1937. And neither is the UK of today the British Empire of yore. Theresa May and Boris Johnson would do well not to try and revive those unhappy memories. This will not end well, and the higher the stakes are raised, the worse the outcome will become for the UK in particular. The EU holds most of the cards, and it is unlikely they will allow the UK to Trump them.