sexta-feira, 31 de março de 2017

Unlike a divorce, the terms of Brexit aren’t up for discussion / May and Sturgeon have set a wheel of fire rolling, and both will struggle to stop it

Unlike a divorce, the terms of Brexit aren’t up for discussion
Joris Luyendijk
What is being negotiated between Britain and the European Union is not the end of a marriage. It’s a self-inflicted downgrade
Donald Tusk

Thursday 30 March 2017 09.09 BST First published on Thursday 30 March 2017 08.30 BST

As Britain formally notifies the EU of its intention to leave it is essential for Brits and Europeans alike to be aware of what is about to start. Both sides tend to speak of a “divorce”, while some British commentators compare the coming negotiations to a “game of chicken”.

These figures of speech are deeply misleading as they feed into a narrative that the UK is still a world power able to shape the circumstances it finds itself in – if not to dictate its terms outright. To see how much this line of thought is still alive, consider how Britain spent the past nine months discussing whether it preferred a “soft” or a “hard” Brexit. The implication was that Britain had a choice – in truth the EU has made it clear from the outset that there are two options only: hard Brexit or no Brexit.

A divorce is between two equal partners. But the UK is to the EU what Belgium, Austria or Portugal are to Germany: an entity eight times as small. If the EU informs the UK that “no soft Brexit means no soft Brexit” then that is what it is.

For the same reason the analogy of a “game of chicken” for the coming negotiations should be cast aside. The UK and the EU may be driving at furious speed into one another, each expecting the other to swerve. But if the UK is a Mini then the EU is a truck.

Except that it is not, because this too is a misleading analogy. Angela Merkel runs the EU’s most important and powerful country but she does not determine what happens in the EU, if only because Germany comprises a mere 20% of the EU economy and only 16% of its population. As much as the Brexiteers like to talk of a European superstate the fact is that no such thing exists. The European commission, the European parliament and the EU member states share power without a single overriding body or office to coordinate events or impose its will. To return to the “game of chicken” analogy: the EU truck has no driver.

And to add even more to Britain’s isolation and vulnerability, the declaration by EU leaders in Rome last week made clear that member states have more important things on their minds than Brexit. Think of terrorism, refugees, eurozone architecture, populist parties, economic stagnation in southern Europe and Russia, to name the top six.

Were one to use an analogy for the EU the best one is probably that of a club of almost 30 vessels sailing together in the belief that this serves their interests. It is not a prison and as is its right, Britain has now voted to leave this club. It is therefore being asked to pay its outstanding bills and get out as soon as possible.

The idea that Britain could cancel its membership yet continue to use the facilities is ludicrous, and yet another example of British self-centrism. Equally ludicrous is the idea that barring Britain from the club’s facilities after its departure amounts to “punishment”. Suppose I cancel my subscription to a newspaper and that newspaper stops being sent to me. Am I now being “made an example of” in order to deter others from cancelling their subscription?

The best characterisation, then, of what is about to come is probably something like “settlement”, “unwinding”, “disentanglement” or “removal”.

In any case the coming negotiations are extremely serious as they will affect the lives of millions of people for years. This is not a game and what is being negotiated is not a divorce. If anything, it is a self-inflicted downgrade.

May and Sturgeon have set a wheel of fire rolling, and both will struggle to stop it
Martin Kettle

One needs a deal she can sell in Scotland; the other is being dragged towards a new referendum. For both, the odds of success are slim
Friday 31 March 2017 07.00 BST

In the pivotal scene of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatyana writes a disastrously counterproductive love letter to the aloof hero. Mistaking Onegin’s reserve for nobility of character, Tatyana throws herself upon him. The scene that follows is one of the most touching in all of European opera.

Britain leaving the European Union, set out in a letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk this week, can hardly be described as touching. Yet, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Theresa May is both an optimist and an idealist. Like Tatyana, she is prone to misread evidence and to prefer hope over experience. This is true of her approach to European. It is also true of the way she is trying to shape post-Brexit Britain.

Which of us, for instance, would not want Britain to be a more united country than it is today? Unity was a key rhetorical element in May’s Commons speech on Wednesday. Two days before she sent her fateful letter to the EU, the prime minister made a speech in Scotland that spelled this out even more explicitly. The words are worth noting because they are very ambitious. The government’s post-Brexit plan for Britain, she said in East Kilbride, “has at its heart one overarching goal: to build a more united nation”.

It is important to do May the credit of understanding that she really means this. She thinks, as she put it in Scotland, that she can get a good deal for Britain in the European negotiations while at the same time delivering for “ordinary working people at home”. She thinks she can bring people and communities together through measures that offer “integration and social cohesion”, while also strengthening the United Kingdom.

A more united nation, in other words, means a renewed social union across the economic divide and a strengthened political union across the home nations.

There was a time in Conservative party history when these were not controversial aspirations. No senior postwar Conservative of the pre-Margaret Thatcher era, with the important exception of Enoch Powell, would have hesitated before speaking in such terms. It was what that era understood by “one nation” conservatism. But Thatcher trashed these pieties. She preferred possessive individualism to a social compact, and she wrapped the party in a more Anglocentric version of Toryism. The party she left behind has struggled with that legacy ever since. It remains a defining constraint on many of May’s practical options.

None of these are potentially more explosive than the union itself. May’s commitment to the union of the United Kingdom is beyond dispute. She is not a Tory who flirts with the idea of letting Scotland loose, as a means of securing Conservative rule more strongly in what remains of the UK. May talks of the “beloved union”. We should assume she means it.

May is now committed to maintaining the union by getting a Brexit deal she can sell in Scotland. Both parts of this plan are highly ambitious. The two together is more ambitious still. On the first part, there have been opaque suggestions this week that May is prepared to compromise more than previously hinted on single market and customs union access, and the Brexit secretary, David Davis, has suggested a more open approach on EU migration. Nevertheless, even if May secured a softer Brexit than she has yet let on, she also has to sell that deal in Scotland over the objections of a Scottish parliament that has now voted for a second independence referendum.

That is a huge ask. The SNP could hardly have been clearer that it opposes May’s approach, wants Scotland to have its own special deal with the EU, and is squeezing the last drop of grievance out of May’s refusal to make an agreement with the Scottish government before triggering article 50 this week. Although SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon does not want to be bounced prematurely into a second referendum she may lose, she is being inexorably pushed into one, thanks to a combination of pressure from her party and May’s stubborn determination not to make early concessions to the Scots’ case. This week’s vote at Holyrood makes it even harder for Sturgeon to back down, even if she wants to.

The Tory brand in Scotland is not as toxic as it once was, at the height of post-Thatcher anger. Its ecumenical leader, Ruth Davidson, has led the party back into second place. But English Toryism can still be lethal in Scotland. With the SNP framing every question as a choice between “Scotland” (ie the nationalists) and “the Tories” (ie May and perhaps the English in general), it is hard for an English Tory prime minister in London to win a hearing – much less an argument – against Sturgeon and the SNP.

Yet that is seemingly the course on which May is now embarked. After this week’s Holyrood vote, the SNP can now only realistically abort the second referendum if May produces a Brexit deal the SNP can embrace. Government sources put it graphically but in a way guaranteed to rile the SNP: “Nicola has climbed a tall tree and got stuck. It’s our task to find ways to help her down.”

That’s not inconceivable, because substantial powers on farming and fishing are about to be repatriated from Brussels, and could then be devolved to Holyrood. Gordon Brown has recently added environmental regulation to that list, along with VAT powers and about £800m currently spent by the EU in Scotland. These are important issues and an SNP that wanted a reason to postpone a referendum could conceivably parade them as a prize worth taking as an alternative.

Yet it is hard not to feel things have already gone too far, that Sturgeon and May have set a wheel of fire rolling that they couldn’t stop even if they wanted to. It’s possible that May believes Sturgeon needs to be drawn into battle on a soft Brexit amid continuing anxieties about the economic case for independence because, in May’s view, the sooner the SNP’s bluff is called, the greater the possibility that a non-nationalist government can take over in Edinburgh after the 2021 Scottish elections.

Which is all fine if you are convinced, first, that Scots will like a soft Brexit when they voted for no Brexit at all; second, that May and Davidson have the reach and tonal command to out-argue Sturgeon and the SNP; third, that Scots, even though maybe not voting in such large numbers as they did in 2014, are willing to inflict an immense electoral defeat on the nationalists; and, fourth, that you have a strategy in place, perhaps even a federal settlement of the sort Brown now advocates, to cope with the anger that such a defeat would trigger.

Perhaps May and Davidson really have got all this worked out. Perhaps May really loves devolution and federalism more than she, a great centraliser, has ever hinted. But if they haven’t, the alternative is the breakup of the “beloved union”. Either way, the stakes could hardly be higher for the UK. From now on, everything that happens on article 50 matters not just for the UK in Europe, but for the very future of the UK itself.

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