by Frank Schnittger
Sun Jun 11th, 2017 at 07:03:01 PM EST
For some strange reason I am vaguely encouraged by the outcome of the British general election, and it is not because the numbers turned out to be broadly as I expected they would be. Theresa May must be one of the worst leaders that even the Tories have ever produced, and no amount of repetition of the mindless "Strong and Stable" mantra could hide that fact.
Equally, the DUP did more or less exactly as I expected they would do in Northern Ireland, and they too have, in Arlene Foster, a leader who is pretty much the worst of a dire lot of predecessors, including Ian Paisley, the party founder, himself. But it is not really the choice of leaders which has me basically equanimous at the election outcome.
It could have been better, it could have been worse, but the outcome of the first post-Brexit election was always going to be something truly awful. The level of delusion, lies and deceit Brexit has introduced into the mainstream of the UK body politic was always going to produce a uniquely toxic stew, and now we can put a name on it: Brexit Mania.
The first symptom of this condition is the belief that there can be such a thing as a "good Brexit deal for Britain". Certainly when compared to the past where the UK was a member, in good standing, of the EU, "a good Brexit deal" can, at best, be an exercise in damage limitation.
The EU, as we know, is no utopia, but even at it's worst it offers better solutions to the international conflict that Brexit will now inevitably, at least to some extent, unleash. It may be a slow, difficult, and bureaucratically complex process to bring any sort of meaningful change to a conglomerate of 28 nations, but it is better than a process which pits the interests of one member state against the rest.
The EU is, above all, a political construct designed to prevent war breaking out between its member states, and in this it has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps the worst example of its shortcomings has been in its relatively recent collective mistreatment of Greece, whereby ordinary Greek citizens are made to suffer for the sins of their past political and current financial elites. German banks must remain solvent even if it means misery and premature death for many Greeks.
However the UK did not exactly cover itself in glory in that fiasco either, and then compounded its malfeasance by requiring that Greece bear the vast majority of the refugee crisis burden caused, in large part, by the UK's own middle eastern policies. That act alone should have made the UK a candidate for expulsion proceedings from the EU, if such a thing were possible. But the fact is that the UK has been a regularly delinquent member of the EU almost since it joined, and the EU's indulgence has only encouraged it to behave ever worse.
Brexit may therefore become one of the best things ever to happen to the EU, and one of the very worst that could ever happen to a former member state. It could, at a stretch, enable the EU to function much more cohesively and progressively, whilst demonstrating to the UK how far it has fallen down the pecking order of relatively advanced nation states.
Brexiteers have wailed that the EU must not act punitively towards the UK once it has left, but that is not really what it's all about: it is the duty of EU 27 leaders to act in the best interests of their collective polity - just as the UK elite should have acted in the UK's best interests. What that means in practice is that the EU will now asset strip the UK of all its EU related economic activities, starting with the City of London and ending with the few remaining British owned strategic businesses in the aerospace, ICT, pharmaceutical and consumer products sectors.
This will have the effect of dramatically reducing the UK's GDP, employment levels, government revenues, Sterling values and the real disposable incomes of its citizens. Theresa May will have her wish: net immigration will be much reduced, and may even be reversed. But it will not be for any good reason: employment opportunities and incomes will simply be better elsewhere.
Brexiteers have argued that the EU will never allow this to happen because "the EU needs the UK as much as the UK needs the EU". At some superficial levels this may almost be true, but it is to misunderstand the nature of the beast that has now been disturbed. If EU cohesion requires that collective action be taken - such as the imposition of tariffs on UK exports to the EU - then that action will be taken, even if EU exporters to the UK and many EU owned industries within the UK are damaged or disrupted in the process. Good corporate strategy directors are already preparing plans to mitigate those risks.
And there can be only one winner in any economic battle between the UK and the EU, and it will not be the UK. Indeed the UK will have the same difficulty when it tries to negotiate trade deals with China, India, Russia, Latin America and former colonies. It's relative economic and political bargaining power will be much diminished. And it had better hurry if its wants to negotiate an advantageous trade deal with Trump's USA. He may lose control of the Senate and its role in ratifying Trade deals after the next mid-term elections.
All of which brings us to Ireland, the EU's member state most exposed to the consequences of a very hard Brexit. The EU has recognised the importance of the Good Friday Agreement in securing peace in Northern Ireland with it's emphasis on guaranteeing the human (and European citizenship) rights of its citizens, and on the role of the Irish Government as co-guarantor of the agreement. Within "an ever closer Union" the distinctions between British and Irish nationalities were going to diminish and enable the development of a more cohesive society there.
Now all of that has been thrown under a bus: Firstly by the Brexit vote (rejected in N. Ireland), and now by the nakedly sectarian and British nationalist nature of the Conservative DUP government likely to come into office. Expect much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Sinn Fein (the other big winners in the N. Ireland elections) refuse to reactivate the Stormont devolved institutions unless it receives guarantees there will be no hard customs border with the south.
That can only happen if the UK remains within the EU Customs Union (like Turkey) or if the Customs border is moved into the Irish Sea - effectively retaining N. Ireland within the Customs Union - which will become extremely problematic for the DUP especially if tariffs are imposed post Brexit. Most of N. Ireland's trade is still with Great Britain, and any border custom controls between N. Ireland and GB will be absolute anathema to the DUP.
The official position now will of course be that a post Brexit EU UK trade deal will obviate the need for any such controls or tariffs, but that is purely wishful thinking at this stage. As things stand, May's insistence on leaving the Single Market (the UK's one major contribution to the EU) and the Customs Union cannot but mean a hard (and unenforcible) border across 500 km of what was previously bandit country at the time of the Troubles. A smuggler's paradise.
So why my guarded optimism? Firstly, if you expect Brexit to be an utter disaster, it helps if the two most reactionary major parties in Britain and N. Ireland are seen to be directly responsible. With the next general election not due to happen until three years after Brexit, the Conservatives and DUP will not be able to evade the electoral retribution coming to those who wreck such havoc upon their people. Labour the SNP and Sinn Fein will likely be the next majority parties in the UK, Scotland and N. Ireland respectively.
This cannot but bring the prospect for Scottish Independence and Irish unification (in some shape or form) somewhat closer. While both of these developments would be problematic projects in their own right, at least the political classes would be directed towards addressing problems that cannot be addressed in a London centric polity, especially in a declining post imperial and post European state.
Many on the left have argued that a DUP Conservative government cannot last that long. This may well be the case given the exigencies of politics, but it also ignores the fact that they are a natural fit: xenophobic, racist, sectarian, (and for the most part) homophobic and sexist - lead by two leaders of a like mind and competence. If they fall the whole Brexit project may yet collapse; but if they succeed Scottish independence and Irish Unity will be several steps closer - the very opposite to what they proclaim to believe.
The Coalition of Chaos (Labour, SNP, Lib Dem, Plaid Cymru and Greens) may have beaten the Brexiteers (Conservatives plus DUP) by 53% of the vote to 43%. But it is the latter which still hold the political whip hand. It will take more than a few bye-election losses to shift them, and that could take much longer than the fast elapsing A50 negotiating period.
My central expectation is still a hard Brexit with either no or no substantial Brexit deal at all, followed by the imposition of tariffs and a rapid deterioration of economic and political relationships. Northern Ireland will be in the eye of the storm as the winds of change released by Brexit mania play themselves out. Let us hope that not too many people will be hurt or killed in the meantime.
Delusionary politics can have very real consequences, and they are generally not for the better. It is the task of a more progressive politics to mitigate the harm and reduce the costs of transition, painful as they may well be. Either way the EU, the UK and Ireland will never be the same again.