Well, the gloves are off and we’re in the Brexit ring with no referee. I am heartened to hear more calls now for an objective non-European mediator in these talks. Meanwhile I have been pondering on the themes of disillusion and delusion. I suspect there is disillusionment on all sides right now as we read of what is described as an “inauspicious beginning” to the Brexit talks. At the same time we have probably all, both Brexiteers and Remainers alike, been deluded in some ways during the Referendum campaign: Remainers taking the outcome for granted by only focusing on the negatives of Project Fear rather than articulating the benefits of remaining a member of the EU; Brexiteers potentially being deluded that the process would not be as disruptive as it is likely to be.
This morning I read a passage from Slavoj Zizik’s Living in the End Times (2010). Zizik talks of how liberal democracies have, in the name of tolerance, been persistently blind to the truth that lies before their eyes. He suggests that the more such a group has invested in the current order the more willing they are to uphold the lies. It is only the dispossessed who can tell things exactly as they are, since they have nothing to lose.
This made me consider how leaders in the UK, Europe and US have been deluding themselves over many decades as to the sentiments existing within the populations they were governing. Throughout these areas those who voiced a concern about the way their country was being run were patronisingly dismissed as ignorant or unenlightened. But, as we are seeing with the events in the UK, US, and much of Europe, when those in power high-handedly ignore legitimate concerns, the voices rise up ever more fiercely, as we are seeing in the French election.
Right now it is Theresa May who is in the negotiating ring. She is bearing the brunt of this populist movement and its outcome in our country and I don’t envy her one bit. Like her or not, support her or not, she didn’t vote for Brexit but stepped forward and is tasked with the responsibility of endeavouring to make the best deal she can for the UK. Whatever our political colours – and I am not a party-political-animal – it is in all our interests that these talks are successful for us and for our allies. It isn’t a time for sniping, it is a time when we need our leaders to be wise and act in the best interests of the world and those they govern.
Of course May and her team have made mistakes as they enter talks. It is easy for Corbyn (who is presenting himself as the hero of Remainers despite being near invisible during the Referendum campaign) and Farron, on the sidelines, to point fingers and say what they would do differently. But I am not convinced that they would be any more effective negotiators themselves. And the leaders of all the parties, together with the leaders of the EU, have played their part in getting us to this point by deluding themselves that those they governed were more content than they were with the status quo. It would be good to see some humility being expressed with how wrongly they read this but I am not hearing it.
Juncker may say that May is deluded but quite frankly, as Emmanuel Macron is pointing out, those in Brussels have been deluding themselves for years in refusing to see the need for reform. In conversations on the subject, I have not heard any great enthusiasm for returning to an unreformed EU, even from those who voted Remain. It isn’t just the UK that has been disillusioned – there are plenty in France, Hungary, Poland and other EU countries who also see the need for reform, as Macron is now demanding, should he be elected President of France on 7 May. But, having failed to influence change in the years leading up to 2016, it was the UK who verbalised and acted on the disillusionment that many others were also feeling.
I for one am disillusioned that the leaders who brought their countries together in this alliance did not have the foresight to create a formal exit strategy that defined a just process of withdrawal. In business any contract bringing companies together in collaboration, mergers and partnerships includes a structured process of exit for those involved, just as the courts provide a fair strategy for exit from a marriage. Why has no one put this in place over these many years, I wonder? It seems incredibly irresponsible as any country wanting to exit (and while it happens to be the UK, it could have been any one of the countries) is basically held to ransom by the power and might of the union of so-called partners they are leaving behind. Would Juncker’s barbed remarks be so easily tolerated if he were describing the exit of a poorer country such as Bulgaria? How might Brussels respond should Frexit occur? Would they accept more responsibility for having created the situation, or would they continue to treat disillusioned countries as if they are the naughty child at the back of the class?
We shall surely seek a trade deal with the EU but I find the threats about how long this could take quite bewildering. Who benefits from delay other than the well-paid bureaucrats and lawyers tasked with these talks? Brussels almost boast of the Trade Treaty with Canada having taken twenty years, but surely this actually demonstrates an abject failure if a trade deal with a country like Canada takes this length of time to conclude? I accept that it is complex – but twenty years? This certainly hasn’t been a benefit for the tax payers of the countries involved who are paying the legal bills.
I have no great confidence in any of the negotiators involved in the Brexit talks, whether from the UK or the EU but some form of an alliance between our countries is of great value to us all – for trade, security, research, science, defence and friendship. The current posturing we are witnessing on both sides is certainly disillusioning and I hope that the tone will change to one of enlightened collaboration as talks progress.
My fear is that we are on the brink of a change that will benefit few but that those on all sides are too stuck and stubborn to flex sufficiently to resolve these complicated problems. Despite the unity shown between the remaining 27 countries at the Brexit meeting to agree principles on Saturday, Brussels nonetheless still faces the prospect of the challenge of disillusion from France and the Eastern European bloc. If they don’t take a good honest look at themselves and respond, we could still witness the break-up of the EU and they would not be able to lay the blame for this at the feet of the UK alone. Brussels would have to take responsibility for their own tardy reaction and intransigence. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that wisdom will prevail to make the changes necessary to maintain peace and cooperation in Europe.
There’s plenty to criticise about Mrs May’s approach but I wouldn’t wish to be her, standing as she does, totally outnumbered in the ring. It will no doubt be the steepest learning curve of her life and I hope that she listens to many perspectives and keeps an open mind to the possibilities and opportunities that profit all as the weeks go by. This brings to mind this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out where the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena whose face is marred, with dust, and sweat and blood…who, at best he knows the triumph of high achievement; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” [Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910]
And of course I should mention, for the politically-correct requirements of our era, that although Roosevelt uses the word ‘man’ I see this quote as encompassing all of humankind …
thank you Helen for another thoughtful post. I especially like the last paragraphs about those who actually have to take the heat.
Excellent blog Helen. Totally agree.