Saturday 23 February 2019

Dorcha Lee: 'Britain's impending departure from EU proves our future can't be guaranteed'

Political celebrity: Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Picture: Reuters
Political celebrity: Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Picture: Reuters

Dorcha Lee

Harry Turtledove is a renowned US science fiction writer and alternative historian. Mixing historical research with a modest suspension of the laws of physics, he succeeds in changing history.

By equipping the Confederate Army with the AK47 automatic rifle in 1861, the South wins the War between the States (formerly the American Civil War). The USA and the CSA (Confederate States of America) take opposite sides in World War I and Ireland becomes a united independent state, before its time.

The concept of introducing some random event, or extraneous factor, into a complex situation to change history, is not new. A spider trying to reach a beam on Rathlin Island changed the course of Scottish history. An archduke is shot in Sarajevo resulting in a world war. A delay in a delivery of Exocet missiles to Argentina saved the UK from defeat during the Falklands/ Malvinas conflict.

Brexit is one such random event which will impact on the course of European history. Even the term 'Brexit' was unheard of four years ago. Now it hovers over all of us, like the sword of Damocles.

A no-deal, or hard, Brexit, will jolt the tectonic plates of UK and Irish politics relatively quickly. Any Brexit will have long-term unintended political and economic consequences.

In trying to understand why Brexit is happening, we can speculate on some of its causes. Is Brexit about identity? Is it about ideology? Do we blame the UK anti-EU newspapers? The rise of English nationalism?

Perhaps 'all of the above' is the closest we can get. The common denominator in most Brexit debates is, in one form or another, the issue of sovereignty. For EU member states we accept the transfer of some our national sovereignty, to Brussels, as a vital element in making the EU work. We voluntarily lose national power but gain in pooled sovereignty.

The UK was never comfortable with this arrangement, as acknowledged by de Gaulle when he blocked UK and Ireland from joining the Common Market in 1967. The irony is that the UK proved to be a good member of the EU, in enacting more EU legislation than the other large states.

The key demand of Brexiteers is the reversion of sovereignty from Brussels to London. When this happens Brexit will be complete, or so they say. That of course is not the end objective. Merely leaving the EU is not enough.

Leaving aside imperialist undertones, I believe the ultimate objective of hard-line Brexiteers will be to recreate the UK as a strong independent regional power in Europe.

Membership of Nato allows them to be such an independent regional power, but membership of an increasingly unified EU will not.

With credible armed forces, and a UK nuclear deterrent, they are well placed to achieve this objective. But they also need to retain their economic strength, and that is the most pressing challenge of Brexit.

On foreign policy, Brexit frees up the UK to resume a more independent line. Will they try to bring back the glory days, or strike out and create new dynamics in European and world relationships?

Leading Brexiteer, MP Jacob Rees Mogg, has been jokingly referred to, by the Remainers, as the "Honourable Member for the 19th Century". It backfired. The eccentric but affable MP has become a celebrity, whose every appearance on TV evokes nostalgia for times past. Reverting to the 19th century still has its attractions for many English traditionalists.

On the other hand, the 20th century marked the decline of the British and other empires.

It is now clear Brexit alone will not put the 'Great' back into 'Great Britain' again.

Post-Brexit, the objective to make the UK 'great again' will be greatly frustrated by the presence of a united EU.

For some hard-line Brexiteers, the logical next step will be to bring about the unravelling of the EU itself. If this were to happen, the UK could resume its historical role of playing one European power off against another. It would also be infinitely easier for a post-Brexit UK to deal directly with France, Germany and Spain than with a united EU.

The UK could end up sharing a common objective with Russia, but perhaps not with a post-Trump US.

Fears that Brexit, and the possible collapse of the euro, could lead to an unravelling of the EU, may have receded but have not entirely gone away. The rise of right-wing populism in Europe, and the failure to deal with the migration issue, could still threaten European stability in the post Merkel/Macron era.

There are no certainties in life other than death and taxes.

Colonel Dorcha Lee (ret'd) is a former Irish Military Adviser in Brussels, and former representative to the WEU and the EU

Irish Independent

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