Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A fit of absence of mind?

The surprise decision by the British electorate to leave the European Union in a referendum on 23 June has left the country and the European continent  scrambling, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

British “A Level” history exams used to include questions such as “what were the main achievements of Gladstone’s first administration” (1868-1874), to which candidates might have responded with a list of acts of parliament, perhaps in this case the Local Government Act, the Irish Land Act and the Licensing Act.

History may have become more complicated since then, but traditional ways of looking at things can still be useful. “What were the main achievements of Cameron’s second administration” (2015-2016), A Level history (or its equivalent) candidates might be asked a century from now. If they are, what will the examiners be looking for?

Will British prime minister David Cameron’s second term in office be seen as a disaster, the one in which he as if by accident and against his own better judgement led the United Kingdom out of the European Union and precipitated the further break-up of his own country? (Scotland and Northern Ireland, unlike England, both voted for the UK to stay in the EU.)

Or will his short-lived second term in office be seen as the one that put the United Kingdom back on the road to self-government outside the clutches of the experiment in supra-national government represented by the EU? That presumably was the view of many of those who voted for the UK to leave the European Union in the country’s 23 June referendum.

Perhaps future examiners will be looking for a more nuanced discussion if candidates are to be considered for an A grade. The referendum may have turned out to be a mistake for Cameron personally and may also have led to a period of political and economic disruption, not only for the UK but also for its erstwhile EU partners.

But in the long run, future historians might say, it meant that the UK could operate freely in international markets once again without being hemmed in by EU regulations. It meant that the UK government was once again fully in control of the country’s destiny.

Vast amounts of column space have been filled both in the UK and abroad on the background and consequences of the British vote to leave the European Union. Far more will no doubt be filled before the vote to leave is honoured, if it ever is, and the dust thrown up by last month’s vote begins to settle.

For the time being, there seems to be no question of the UK not honouring the result of the referendum and putting in motion the mechanisms required to leave the EU, though the latter has not yet happened. Cameron resigned as soon as the results of the referendum were known, but made it clear that negotiations over the British exit, expected to take at least two years, would be a matter for his successor, now named as former interior minister Theresa May.

Political life in the UK has been changed radically by the result of the referendum vote, with Cameron, expected to stay in office until 2020 after winning last year’s general elections, now retiring from government and some of his associates, among them the UK finance minister George Osborne and justice minister Michael Gove, also out of office.

Britain now has a new prime minister in the shape of Theresa May, making her the country’s second woman prime minister. Meanwhile, all is chaos on the opposition benches, with the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, already in a precarious position before the vote, now looking fatally wounded.

 Perhaps more serious than these upsets in Westminster politics, particularly in the medium and longer term, have been negative changes in the country’s financial position and economic prospects in the wake of the referendum. The UK pound slid against other currencies as most economists said it would in the wake of the referendum decision, and economic actors large and small are likely to hold off on making any major investment or purchasing decisions until the situation settles.

Changes in economic indicators, including in exchange rates, interest rates, and stock market values, have already caused the UK government to change its economic forecast for the next five years, with the situation not being helped by the country’s international credit-rating, a measure of its ability to borrow, being downgraded by two of the world’s leading ratings agencies.

Higher inflation is expected as a result of the slide in the value of the pound, making imported goods, whether finished products or raw materials, significantly more expensive and further affecting many UK citizens’ already stretched standards of living. While none of this would matter much in the longer term if there were reason to be optimistic about fundamentals, the referendum decision may also have permanently damaged the country’s economic prospects if it leads to the loss of European markets and foreign investment.

Already there have been reports that foreign investors, pouring into particularly the London property market in recent years, have been trying to withdraw their money. Foreign companies will no doubt do the same if they fear a loss of access to European markets. Meanwhile, France and Germany in particular stand poised to mop up any financial and other business wanting to move out of London.

Over recent decades the City of London, the UK’s financial and business hub, has profited enormously from European integration and the opportunities offered to banks and businesses by economic deregulation. Should these businesses now lose the right to operate throughout the EU from their base in the City as a result of the UK decision to leave the European Union, they are unlikely to want to stay in London.

Writing on the spectacular empire-building that followed in the footsteps of British trade throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the 19th-century British historian Sir John Seeley once famously said that “we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” While the “absence of mind” theory has since been widely discredited as explaining British colonial expansion in Africa, India, and other parts of the world, there may now be an argument for returning to it in a different context.

The jury is still out on whether or not the UK was right to leave the EU and whether, as some have argued, the decision could in the medium to longer term benefit both the UK and the EU by unleashing a new wave of reforming energy, not only in the UK but also in a largely stagnant continental Europe. However, whether positive or negative in the longer term, for many observers it is a decision that seems to have been taken with a remarkable insouciance, possibly even an “absence of mind.”

Seeley, at a loss to explain how the British had come to govern India, said it was never planned, never thought-through, never centrally directed. Could this traditional explanation now have taken on a new application, helping to explain the UK’s present decision to leave the European Union?

DIFFICULT HISTORY: According to UK journalist Hugo Young, the author of This Blessed Plot, a standard work on the relationship between Britain and the EU, the problematic relationship between Britain and the EU goes back to the beginnings of European economic integration in the 1950s.  

Young, who died in 2003 and throughout his life was a convinced “pro-European,” by which he meant maximising British involvement in the economic and political arrangements of what since 2009 has officially been called the European Union, has some harsh things to say in his book about British difficulties with continental European economic and political integration.

Winston Churchill was British prime minister from 1951 to 1955 at a time when Belgium, France, the then West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, keen to rebuild their economies after the destruction of the Second World War, established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the precursor of the present European Union. Churchill was convinced that Britain was “with Europe, but not of it,” Young says. By this he apparently meant that Britain should distance itself from European efforts at economic and possibly eventually also political integration, while nevertheless continuing to bless them.

Antony Eden, Young continues, British prime minister on Churchill’s retirement until forced to step down by the Suez Crisis, the Tri-Partite Aggression of Britain, France and Israel in 1956 against Egypt, was similarly ambivalent about continental efforts towards greater economic and political integration and what was now becoming more and more identified as the core of the future political order in Europe.

“The Treaty of Rome, providing for a common market and an ever closer union of the peoples whose leaders invented it, was signed on 25 March 1957,” Young writes, by the countries of the ECSC, creating the European Economic Community (EEC). The fact that “the Suez disaster and the Rome Treaty occurred almost simultaneously – November 1956 and March 1957 – was an accidental fact… but together they raised the question of national identity as a predicament that has perhaps been experienced more acutely in Britain than in any other European nation.”

“Suez, the terminal calamity of Empire, infused the British mind at the moment when the European dilemma, which has tormented it ever since, was already beginning to assume massive importance,” he says.

Even allowing for Young’s over-statements, economic and political integration in Europe from which Britain was excluded, “self-excluded” he says, presented a problem for the next generation of British politicians. Harold MacMillan, British prime minister until October 1963, led British efforts to join the then EEC, only for these to be rebuffed in January 1963 by the refusal of then French president Charles de Gaulle. A second effort was made under Harold Wilson’s Labour Party government in 1967, only for this also to be rebuffed by de Gaulle. It was only when de Gaulle himself was safely off the scene in January 1973 that Britain finally joined the EEC.

For Young, the “nodal figure” in the story of Britain’s relationship with the developing EEC was Edward Heath, British prime minister from 1970 to 1974 and the man most often credited with negotiating Britain’s entry. However, “what Britain-in-Europe was for, in Heath’s mind, is a question to which the answer is elusive,” he comments. “Closely related to it is the question of what the British people were told it was about and [what Heath] having accomplished the brute fact of entry did and didn’t do to move the British people towards starting to becoming truly European people,” by which, of course, Young must mean “people whose country was part of the EEC,” since they were already European.

One answer to this question and the one commonly given is that Heath felt that Britain, apparently sliding into economic anarchy, had little choice but to seek the perceived security of closer economic integration with the countries of the EEC. “Our decline in relation to our European partners,” wrote British diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson in 1979, quoted by Young, “has been so marked that today we are not only no longer a world power, but we are not even in the first rank as a European one.” Though Young does not say so in relation to Heath, who was in any case ejected from office just one year after entry, the reason behind the British entry to the EEC in 1973 was a growing sense of economic and political desperation.

 “Britain’s entry into Europe,” he writes in the introduction to his book, meaning in this context the EEC, “was a defeat – a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, and never for one moment a climatic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe,” as he claims the EEC was for the continental European countries that entered it. “This has been integral in the national psyche, perhaps only half articulated, since 1973: the sense of the [European] Community as a place of British failure.”

European economic and political integration, on hold throughout the 1970s, speeded up in the 1980s and 1990s, transforming what until the mid-1980s remained a largely economic grouping into the additionally political organisation familiar today. From the British point of view, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in office from 1979 to 1990, did important work in “addressing a real and undeniable problem,” Young writes, which was that the EEC “was stacked against the British.”

She renegotiated the UK’s financial contribution to the EEC in 1984, and in 1986 she signed the Single European Act, becoming “one of the chief architects of further European union” by creating a single market throughout Europe and furthering political integration.

Britain signed the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which reorganised the institutions of what was now officially the European Community (EC) and established the Maastricht Criteria leading to the introduction of the European common currency. However, it retained important “opt-outs,” notably on the so-called “social chapter” of the Treaty on employment and other regulations and on the obligation eventually to sacrifice the pound in order to adopt the euro.

More recently, Britain was also a keen supporter of the expansion of the EC, officially the European Union after the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, to the former Soviet Eastern European countries in 2004 and 2007.

Uncertainties ahead: Writing at the end of the 1990s, Young commented on the problems that might beset member states of what at the time was still the European Community, notably as a result of the planned introduction of the euro as the common European currency and the perceived “democratic deficit” – meaning the absence of democratic control – of European institutions.

Talking prophetically, he wrote that monetary union “imposes huge demands for economic reform on societies that are not necessarily prepared to abandon the social protections which more market-driven, liberalized economic rules will imperil. The usual flexibilities, whether of wages or of jobs, that need to exist within a zone that has a single interest rate will take years to develop. The central controller of monetary policy will be not a group of elected politicians, but the European Central Bank.”

In the British case, not exposed to the stresses likely to be produced as a result of monetary union and the sense that monetary policy had been taken out of democratic control, there would likely also be protests against the perceived “elitist character” of the European institutions, especially if the country faced economic problems that could be blamed on Europe as a convenient lightning rod, attracting attention away from the policies of governments in London.

The answer, Young felt, in a way that one feels must have struck him as inadequate even as he wrote it, was greater education. The British “political class,” he wrote, had “failed to convey, perhaps even to experience, a sense of idealism about the [European] project,” and if the “political class” had not experienced any enthusiasm, what chance was there that there would be enthusiasm among the wider population?

“The sense of ‘winning’ a constant series of zero-sum games against partners who were really opponents continued to be the narrative line of the story [British] governments told” about the European Community. “I have found no trace of any prime minister, from Heath to Blair, returning from a European summit to report that he had supported, or else opposed, a decision solely because such a course was best for the future of Europe” as opposed to fighting Britain’s corner in the face of “mad continental integrationists.”

Young had Thatcher in mind, since she had gained a reputation for aggressively promoting Britain’s views in Europe, but the description, though written in 1998, could almost be applied unchanged to Cameron’s attempts at negotiation with the EU before the British referendum earlier this year.

“In due course, one might expect some explicit statements that the EU brought advantages to Britain which did not deserve the neurotic suspicion people had long been taught to apply to everything coming out of Brussels,” Young wrote in 1998. Such statements were nevertheless lacking in the recent campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union. But “neurotic suspicion” is a bit strong. Those who campaigned against British membership of the EU had every right to raise people’s suspicions of it. They were simply engaging in politics.

Meanwhile, the flood of commentary that accompanied the British referendum result may not now have exactly shrunk to a trickle, but there is far less of it than there was in the week following the announcement.

After a period of what looked like recrimination, when those who had voted to remain in the EU in the UK and those who had voted to leave traded insults in the UK and European politicians, apparently caught unawares, argued with each other, attention has now turned to what might happen next, both for Britain and for the European Union.

For Britain, everything may depend on the kind of deal the country manages to negotiate with its former European partners, perhaps especially regarding access to the single market and the right of London-based financial and other institutions to work throughout the EU. Losing access to the single market, or the City of London’s losing its access to EU financial and other markets, could be a serious economic blow for Britain.

As far as the EU is concerned, the future does not necessarily look bright. The organisation’s member states have been fragmenting into sub-groupings since at least the 2008 financial crisis and the stresses this put on some Eurozone countries, with the result that it has become more and more obvious that the scenario that Young warned of in 1998 has indeed substantially come to pass.

It is not clear that the economic interests of the southern European countries, particularly Greece, but also Spain and Italy, are served by monetary policies dictated by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. France, too, with at least five million unemployed and pressing social problems, is woven into a European web that left to its own devices it would probably not have chosen.

The Central and Eastern European states, suspicious of coming low on the list of EU priorities or of being seen by Germany and other Western European states as simply reservoirs of cheap labour, have also begun to suspect that the EU may not be operating in their interests. Several of them, notably Hungary, have announced their intention of resisting EU directives on migration.

In the meantime, France and Germany, with the UK’s exit the two remaining economic heavyweights among the EU’s soon-to-be 27 member states, are competing with each other to reap the maximum benefit from the British decision to leave the EU. French newspapers in recent weeks have been full of reports on what Paris could do to steal the EU financial services crown from its competitor Frankfurt, should the City of London be denied single-market access rights.

All this looks like good old-fashioned economic competition unrelated to the “euro-twaddle” of economic “solidarity,” as Young puts it, that is supposed to govern relations between EU member states.

EU refoundation: However, there is also a hope, less loudly articulated in the mainstream media than on social media and in discussions among EU citizens, that the British exit, whatever else this turns out to mean for Britain or the remaining states of the European Union, should be seized on as an opportunity and not as an excuse to inflict punishment on economically or politically erring EU member states.

 Could the EU now take this opportunity to become more democratic, more answerable to the needs and wishes of its citizens, less remote, less centralised and bureaucratic, more able to inspire hope than, as it has done in recent years, a mixture of fear and suspicion?

Writing in the French newspaper Le Monde on 3 July, Isabelle Spaak, daughter of the Belgian politician Paul-Henri Spaak, one of the founding fathers of European economic and political integration after the Second World War, said that for many Europeans today the “ideals of solidarity, peace and projects in common” that had inspired the members of the founding generation of the EU had given way to “a bureaucratic monster that inspires no one except the bureaucrats in Brussels.”

“How have we got to this point,” she asked, one at which EU officials had reacted to the news of the British exit by saying that the organisation would need in future to “speak more to its citizens.”

“Have they so lost the habit of speaking,” she asked. “Is the EU so completely cut off from the reality” of the lives of its citizens? She concluded that “there needs to be more talking, more getting out of offices.” There needs to be an effort made “to re-enchant the world,” she said, in what could turn out to be the beginnings of a new Britain and a new European Union.

search keywords

add comment

  • follow us on