Saturday 22 October 2016

In the end, Britain will bottle it when it comes to exiting EU

Gerard O'Regan

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

'The days of Empire are well and truly over.' REUTERS/Reinhard Krause
'The days of Empire are well and truly over.' REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

The British - later rather than sooner - are going to bottle this whole Brexit fantasy when they finally accept they simply can't afford it.

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It certainly has been a whirlwind few days across the Irish Sea. A bunch of political mavericks and sundry oddballs have brought the country to the cliff face.

Given the do-or-die stakes involved, it's no wonder saner voices, such as departing Prime Minister David Cameron, refused to activate the infamous Article 50. That would have landed the UK in quicksand - provoking a nightmarish departure from the yoke of Brussels.

At least he realised the need to stop and think. As time goes by, more sensible voices will hopefully drown out the wailings of the Brexiteers. The figures don't lie. Britain has no option but to remain in what used to be known as 'the common market' to protect the livelihood and living standards of millions of its citizens.

The Leave campaign attracted some really hard-nosed right-wingers, such as Michael Gove, on a range of issues.

It also ensnared some assorted opportunists on the make, determined to use the current whirligig to further their political careers.

A collective anti-immigration hysteria was obviously the emotional springboard which galvanised their side to referendum victory. But despite all the verbiage, hysteria and lying on a gargantuan scale, there was no real debate on the excruciating choices to be confronted if there really is to be a final goodbye to Brussels.

Britain is like all other members of the Euro club. It gets the not-to-be-underestimated opportunity to buy and sell in an open market of 500 million people. But the Brexit extremists just cannot accept this arrangement must be a collective without borders, and that includes the free movement of EU citizens.

No matter how they try, Brexiteers are not going to change that trade-off. If they were to get their way, the whole philosophy underpinning the EU collapses. Many other countries would also like to keep the free trade bit - and only take immigrants of their choice. But that cannot be allowed to happen. If members enjoy the gain, they must accept the pain.

The high farce this week surrounding Boris Johnson, the figurehead for the Leave movement, highlights how ill-thought-out this whole campaign has been from the start.

Within hours of his victory, Johnson, in his newspaper column, seemed to be "wobbling".

On mature reflection, he was not as hardline on Brexit and immigration as his more rabid electioneering slogans suggested. Yet, he had used the long-running sore in the Tory party over EU membership to stab Cameron in the back.

The plan was to propel himself into No 10 Downing Street. Those who believe in karma might say it was just deserts that his comrade-in-arms, Michael Gove, then plunged the knife between Johnson's shoulder blades. The motivation all round was cold ambition.

Meanwhile, the Brexit brigade still cleaves to the idea it can have its cake and eat it. Some hope to swing a kind of EU deal similar to that enjoyed by the Norwegians. That would indeed keep them in the EU free trade area - but the downside is they would still have to accept the bugbear of free-flowing immigration.

In any case, this sideline arrangement is fine for the isolationist-inclined Norwegians. But for the once-mighty power which was Great Britain, it would signal a dramatic coming down in the world.

The Norwegians - because they are not full members - are excluded from key decision-making at the EU top table.

For the UK to be sidelined in such a manner would be a national humiliation. No wonder the French are giving every indication they would really be delighted to see the back of Perfidious Albion.

After all, with the Brits out of the way, France would clearly be number two to the ever-dominant Germans, in the European pecking order.

It's impossible not to feel the current UK government has seriously weakened its bargaining position following the confluence of recent events.

For the moderates, playing a very, very, long game is obviously a most appealing tactic going forward.

But Brexit ideology will remain a poisonous issue for the Conservative party, and hardliners will keep pressing for extremist action.

The illusion of being one of the world's great powers ended for Britain as far back as 1956 when its attempt to regain control over the Suez Canal ended in a humiliating withdrawal from Egypt.

The days of gunboat diplomacy had stuttered an end. So it is with this current delusion of going it alone and abandoning the EU.

The country no longer has the stature, power or resources to operate as a beacon of imperial isolation. The days of Empire are well and truly over.

Irish Independent

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