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Brexit: Why both Britain and Russia struggle with Europe

The Insider

The world is looking on in baffled astonishment as Prime Minister May takes us deliberately closer to the cliff edge. In just a few days time our ports may seize up, the pound could crash, and basic goods could become unavailable. Even if Mrs. May manages to force her deal through parliament our once famed reputation for statesmanship, diplomatic skill, and cool reserve when faced with a crisis is in shreds.

Our government seems no closer to a solution than on the day after the vote. There is no clear vision of what Britain should look like beyond membership of the EU. And worse still we are now seen as source of instability on the continent.

How on earth could all of this happen?

No doubt history will note the sclerotic leadership of Mrs May as she has sought to please her own backbenchers, the hardcore Brexiteers and representatives of the people who voted to leave.

In her mind she is no doubt carrying out the will of the majority, but a narrow majority at that. But she is criticized for failing to fine common ground within parliament, squandering numerous chances to find a compromise. A stronger leader would have sought an agreement across parliament possibly at the expense of the eurosceptics in her party.

Europe’s leaders have now had enough and their only option is to protect themselves from the damaging fallout. It was a difficult task for any prime minister to handle, but the conclusion at least for now is there are not many who could have done a worse job.

Not everything can be landed at Mrs May’s feet. Remainers blame former PM Cameron for calling the referendum in the first place. However I think the roots of that indecision, our inability to come to terms with Europe of any kind go much deeper.

Over the past two years writers have explained the vote as the result of a backlash against the elites, much like Trump’s America in the wake of globalization and the economic crisis. Robert Peston, perhaps Britain’s best known political economist, wrote a book last year reflecting the nation’s deep sense of shock at the vote. Poingnantly entitled  “WTF,” it looks at stagnant wages and a huge swathe of society disconnected from Westminster for whom, at least in their minds, the EU has no visible benefits.

I am sure this is true. But these are not exclusive problems, much of Europe and the West share these ailments. I am not so sure though that any other country in Europe would have voted in such large numbers to quit the block.

Russians are among the best placed to understand why. We are blessed or cursed, depending on how you see it, with a history that sets us apart from the rest of Europe.

The EU at its most fundamental level is made up of countries that have sacrificed some sovereignty for membership of an alliance that gives them both security and wealth. Every single member of the EU, with the exception of Sweden, has experienced dictatorship, occupation or both. For the countries of the former Eastern block, joining the EU was an aspiration, a promise of improved living standards and protection from their former Soviet neighbour.

Britain on the other hand has suffered neither. We simply don’t share that same sense of aspiration or the need to belong.

This year I will be fifty – and I am near the cut off point which seems to divide our society. When I grew up children still played soldiers in the playground where the Germans were the baddies. We grew up watching films such as The Eagle Has Landed, Escape to Victory, the Dam Busters – all of which reminded us our heroic past. We had an empire and as The Sun, still Britain’s most popular tabloid, likes to remind us from time to time we, won the war. (Worryingly I see Russia pursuing a similar vein with its parades, and Soviet nostalgia.)

Now I doubt that very many people were thinking of this as they headed to the polls on June 23, 2016.  But I think it is fundamental to our self-perception and view of the world. We have a sense of confidence that sets up apart from the rest of Europe; why do we need Brussels or anyone else to tell us what to do?

In 1975 the electorate voted to join the Common Market – which was sold more as trading block than some form of political union. And ever since our press and politicians have had fractious relationship with it. Our papers have been constantly filled by articles protesting against intrusive regulation (many of them famously written by Boriss Johnson when he was The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent) The fact that we helped to shape both European enlargement and the parameters of the single market are unknown to most here. 

Brussels is remote from ordinary voters and its institutions too complex for most understand (Do you know the difference between the European Council and the Council of Europe – Clue; Russia is a member of one but not the other!)  Our own politicians have shown they too know little about its procedures, powers or institutions in the negotiating process.

Like Russia we are weighed down by our history, and too proud to accept a different world. It is a misplaced sense of confidence in a world where the advantages of Empire, and military power have gone – an anachronism in a world of rapid global trade and communications.

And while we don’t want anyone else to tell us what to do, we seem very unsure of what to do ourselves. Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s oft repeated quote that Britain has lost an empire but has yet to find a role is just as true today as it was when he made it in 1962. Parliament’s inability to find a way out of the Brexit quagmire reflects a deeply divided nation, one that has been uncomfortable with its membership from the outset.

Brexit seems set to deepen our divisions, let alone define a new sense of purpose.

Enoch Powell, the former Conservative MP and grandfather of today’s Eurosceptics would have advised us to have no fear, turn our back to the continent and trade with the rest of the world. Many Brexiteers admit it will cause lasting economic damage and that we will be the poorer for it at least in the short term. Polls shows very few have changed their mind and those who voted to leave would do so again.

This in turn highlights a split between young and old. The majority of people aged 47 and over voted to leave, those below, remain. Remainers often point out that that if there were another referendum today, sufficient number of Brexiteers will have died for them to carry the vote and by a good margin.

Something that Powell might not have envisaged is the constitutional crisis it has provoked. The Conservative Eurosceptics – who pride themselves as defenders of the Union (the official name of the Conservative party is the Conservative and Unionist Party – Powell in fact became an Ulster Unionist MP after leaving the Conservative Party over Europe) have trampled on the will of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom in their desire to break free from Brussels.

Northern Ireland’s peace-process has been contingent on EU membership and an open border with the Republic of Ireland. It voted by a large margin to remain within the EU. Scotland too also voted to remain by a significant margin. Its hard not too look at Brexit from their perspective as the project of English nationalists – a project that could break the United Kingdom apart.

At the moment there is no vision that can see around these contradictions. Who knows how long it will take us to come to terms with Europe and at what the cost ultimately be to us. But perhaps by then our sense of ourselves and our place in the world will have changed – and we will be better able to do so.

Nicholas Wood lives in the UK and is a former correspondent with the New York Times. He now runs the news travel company Political Tours.

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