A year after the Brexit vote, the long negotiations between the UK and the EU have begun. Having been deeply saddened by the referendum result and the UK’s triggering of Article 50, I now ask myself if the UK has ever been a true EU member and has European ideals. It is now clear that the UK wants to remain “friends” with the EU but will go no further. I have had plenty of time to think about, and adjust to, the emotional schism that occurred deep in my soul, following the Brexit vote. For British/EU expats, and double-nationals in particular, it is more than a rejection of a union – it is denigrating who we are. It has taken me a very long time to realise the potential benefits of Brexit, such was my unconditional love for the United Kingdom – in the same way that a son loves his unloving father. I will always remain affected by this decision, and will always regret it. If this is the psychological price I have to pay for a stable and long-lasting EU, then so be it, and I sincerely hope that it also works out for the UK.
Article 50 and a French window
“Come with us, Theresa – we have something that you don’t.”
Emmanuel Macron seems to have a certain undeniable charm towards older ladies, and we’re not talking about his wife Brigitte Macron. Theresa May, only a few years younger than the French First Lady, is in a very precariously vulnerable position, one that Macron appeared to be inclined to exploit. The advances he has made to Theresa May are, at best, misplaced and at worst, cynical. His open door to the UK’s abandonment of Article 50 and all that goes with it, rather resembles a large French window than a beautiful mahogany door.
Behind the window lies the temptation of the EU, comprising freedom of movement and the single currency that the Brexit voters are refusing. In front of the window, there’s a courtyard that’s big enough to park the two referendum campaign buses – Boris Johnson’s red one on the right, and Nigel Farage’s purple one on the left. Both must avoid the beautiful statue of Marianne, standing proudly in the middle of the courtyard. Marianne is the emblem of true republican values and enlightenment that Macron shouted to the world in his victory speech at the Louvre. Behind the French window, Theresa May can see Macron’s overwhelming majority in the French senate, all shouting in unison “Come with us, Theresa – we have something you don’t”. That something, of course, is a working majority. Embarrassed and red-faced, Theresa May has to look and face the other way – towards Northern Ireland.
I have had plenty of time to think about, and adjust to, the emotional schism that occurred deep in my soul, following the Brexit vote. For British/EU expats, and double-nationals in particular, it is more than a rejection of a union – it is denigrating who we are. Taking such an integral part of our existence for granted, we are at a complete loss when it disappears. So now, let us just get on with it and let the UK leave, because that is what was voted for. That Theresa May has lost her parliamentary majority underscores the deep divide concerning all that lies on this side of Calais. The late Helmut Kohl believed that the EU should respect the UK’s decision and not seek punishment. However, the activation of Article 50 must remain an irreversible process.
I do not know what the benefits of leaving (if any) will be for the UK. But there is an upside to the story for the EU, if the opportunity offered by Brexit is taken, to deeply reform EU functioning and its relationship with its citizens. These benefits justify the need to get on with Brexit and finish it as soon as possible.
To understand why this is so crucial, we have to go back to the days when the UK was desperately seeking to join the European Economic Community (EEC). We have to listen to then French president and founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle.
Why the EU and UK will never understand each other
“Non, c’est non.”
President de Gaulle was vehemently opposed to the UK joining the EEC, and twice vetoed the UK’s application for membership. Amidst the chaos surrounding the impending Brexit, can we describe de Gaulle as a visionary?
It’s quite interesting to relate what de Gaulle said at the time (1963 to 1967) to what is happening now. His basic argument is that the UK and the EEC are like chalk and cheese, and are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible.
The nature, structure and conjuncture characterising the UK differs profoundly from that of the Continentals.
Basically, what de Gaulle said is that there was no place for the UK in the Common Market due to fundamental differences in the way the UK functioned, compared to the 6 member countries (France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries). How could the UK possibly join the Common Market whilst, at the same time, importing cheap lamb from New Zealand and subsidising its farmers? This was firmly against the ‘common agricultural policy’, which excluded the import of agricultural products from outside the European market. The EEC argued that food supplies needed to be secured and rural communities protected. Upon joining the EEC, the UK would have to sign up to the policy, effectively ending New Zealand’s preferential export of agricultural products to the UK. This underscored de Gaulle’s belief that the UK could not be remotely interested in the European project, being too busy trading with the United States and the Commonwealth. The answer to the UK’s application to join the EEC was a categorical “NON”. No is no, and there was nothing the UK could do about it. Apart from joining in 1973, that is.
De Gaulle went on to severely criticise the UK, which he describes as “inward looking” and “maritime” nation, preferring to trade with North and South America, and its former colonies, rather than Continental Europe. Harsh words, from a man who enjoyed the relative freedom of London during the war. For de Gaulle, it was a question of rebuilding a war-torn Europe for the future. It was a future without the UK, whose persistence in applying for EEC membership ASAP and at any cost, was akin to a Greek tragedy.
A five act tragedy
For Charles de Gaulle, the UK’s attitude towards the 6 founding members of the EEC was nothing short of dramatic. A drama in 5 acts that was impossible to follow due to the erratic and illogical behaviour of its main protagonist. From refusing to participate in the founding Treaty of Rome in Act I, Act II saw the UK denouncing preferential EEC tariffs, trying to impose its own conditions for membership in Act III, favouring the Commonwealth over the EEC in Act IV, only to unconditionally “surrender” to EEC membership demands by Act V.
Why would you want to negotiate clauses if you have completely accepted them in advance?
How little has changed. The UK wants to “negotiate” Brexit, having already refused to accept free movement of people, the European Court of Justice, and the Customs Union.
A monumental exception
Charles de Gaulle did make valid points when he referred to the fact that the UK’s very weak economy would have to change radically to be able to “fit in” with the other member countries. A permanent trade deficit, a weak currency, exchange controls, absence of free movement of capital, together with archaic UK employment laws, were just a few of the problems that the UK faced at the time. To be able to adapt to the emerging “new world order”, the UK would have to change so radically that it would probably be in danger of losing its identity.
In any case, according to de Gaulle, the UK wouldn’t even be able to pay its share of the EEC contribution fee.
The UK could not change these facts without modifying its nature….If UK membership were imposed, it would lead to the break up of the community based on rules that cannot support such a monumental exception.
For Charles de Gaulle, the UK’s political, economic and social policies were not compatible with the construction of the European Community.
The Community could not support the introduction of a major member who, because of its currency, its economy and its politics, is not, at present, part of the Europe that we have started to build.
Has the UK ever been “truly” European?
In 1967, de Gaulle did not want the UK to join the Common Market. He had severe reservations about the UK’s economic situation and its ability to adapt. It is ironic that, when compared to 1967, the present UK’s economy is much more in line with that of the EU and, certain economic indicators, such as employment, are much better than those of most EU members. This time around, the problem that the UK faces with the EU is not free circulation of capital and economics, but, foremost, free movement of individuals and politics. This is a much more worrying state of affairs, because it reflects a more dangerous underlying state of mind. If we are to be honest about the referendum campaign that took place, we have to admit that it was, to a very large extent, based on immigration.
Having triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Theresa May finds herself in the same negotiating position as Harold Wilson fifty years ago. “Reverse” negotiations are to begin, with the UK, as in 1967, already having decided its position and the EU not prepared to compromise. Again, the UK will comply to the will of the EU – not being in a position to argue. The other option, of course, is to leave without an agreement.
The EU will come out stronger on one vital aspect – fighting the dangers of populism. It is already clear that the EU is gaining popularity amongst its citizens. Recent elections in France and the Netherlands have – for the time being – averted a political breakthrough for the anti-European parties of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. In Italy, the anti-establishment Five Star Party suffered major setbacks in the last municipal elections, and in Germany, Angela Merkel is still looking strong. A quick solution to Brexit is necessary so that the EU can move forwards, reform profoundly the ways in which it works, and tackle the multiple Eastern versions of Brexit.
It has taken me a very long time to realise the potential benefits of Brexit, such was my unconditional love for the United Kingdom – in the same way that a son loves his unloving father. I will always remain affected by this decision, and will always regret it. If this is the psychological price I have to pay for a stable and long-lasting EU, then so be it, and I sincerely hope that it also works out for the UK. “Bon Voyage, Madame May et Au Revoir”.
Update of a previous post.