Brexit is a shambles, but Britain has no realistic option but to leave the EU
The European Union will also be better off without its most reluctant and argumentative partner
Many things have changed since I left Britain in 2010 to live abroad in the Arabian Gulf and Malaysia. The one thing I could not have expected, however, was the hideous farce and the near total collapse of political leadership that have surrounded Brexit. When Britons voted to leave the European Union in 2016, friends in Malaysia were baffled – why would you want to leave such a successful organisation, they asked. At that stage it still appeared that, after no doubt tough discussions, some kind of mutually satisfactory deal could be reached.
Since then, the levels of deceit and disorganisation, the ignorance of high-ranking politicians – such as Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary who had to admit he wasn’t aware how important the port of Dover was to trade with Europe – and the calamitous spectacle of MPs angrily refusing to work together to deliver an agreement, any agreement, have made Britain a global laughing stock. It is no wonder the two main parties did so terribly in the recent local council elections. I wearily shake my head when queried about the latest developments back home.
I still believe, though, that whatever the terms and whether sooner or later, it is absolutely right that the UK should leave the EU.
I say this not because of the 2016 referendum, which, although non-binding and purely advisory, remains a clear expression of the national will. I say this not because at the 2017 general election both Labour and the Conservatives promised to deliver Brexit. And I say this regardless of the prediction that Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party will come first in the European elections, which will be held later this month.
I say this because, if properly understood, the EU is an organisation in which Britain can never have any honourable future.
For the EU is not just some amiable club, in which members will always retain their independence. At its very heart, there is a firm and inexorable direction of travel – towards “ever closer union”, as the preamble to the EU’s founding document, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, put it, or a “United States of Europe”, as the former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, stated in 2017.
I think there is not the slightest doubt that a majority of Britons do not want ever to be part of such a union – and if that was the question actually asked on the ballot, another referendum on the UK’s place in the EU would produce an earth-shattering “no”.
Arguably, the UK should never have joined in the first place. Some European academics with whom I’ve debated this believe that Britain knew exactly what it signed up for in the 1970s. But many who voted yes in the 1975 referendum did not. With typical British suspicion of highfalutin rhetoric, they thought it was about staying in or leaving something clearly labelled the European Economic Community. British EU-philes who urged their fellow citizens to remain conveniently failed to remind voters that the aim was for it to morph into something quite different.
What that is has now become clear, as Mr Schulz and other true believers have shown us. It is in the nature of any federal government to take a certain amount of power from individual states. However, in America, everyone gets to vote for the president. The people of the EU are not asked who should be made president of the European Commission, which the EU describes as “the principal executive body” of the entire organisation. I have never, and will never, have a vote on who should be the EU’s leader. That is a democratic outrage. Although the EU has not reached the level of federally controlled government that the US has, it is headed in that direction, with almost no direct mandate from its individual citizens whatsoever.
Clear-sighted British politicians on the left could always discern the real aim of the European project and warned against it. In 1960, the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, said membership of a federal Europe would mean “the end of Britain as an independent nation-state… the end of a thousand years of history.” In the 1975 referendum, one of the most eloquent voices against membership was that of Peter Shore, a senior Labour cabinet minister who would have made a fine prime minister. His party also committed to withdraw from the community in its 1983 manifesto, which casts claims of wanting to leave the EU being a right-wing plot in a somewhat different light.
It is an act of bad faith for the UK to remain a member of an organisation that makes its final destination plain, when the majority of Britons have no desire to go there. Hoping for reform is useless – we have tried and tried, but the EU has given no sign of ever agreeing to become a looser association that preserves the rights of nation states.
It is bad for the EU too, to have a member always being the one saying "no", asking for endless opt-outs and caveats. It is in the interests of the other countries that the UK leaves, so that they proceed with their plans without us carping on in the background.
This, ultimately, is about sovereignty. As an advocate of open borders, it is not one jot about immigration for me. I also accept that there would be an economic cost to departing, at least in the short term. Neither do I have any nostalgia for vistas of lost empire or any other similar nonsense.
The question is simple. Do we want to be part of a United States of Europe or not? If the answer is “no”, which I firmly believe it is, then we must leave. That is all there is to it.
Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum
Updated: May 6, 2019 05:01 PM