"We miss you already" - these were the last words of the speech by Donald Tusk as he acknowledged receiving the UK's letter triggering withdrawal from the European Union.
So, the Brexit process is beginning. When, many years ago, my parents split up, it was at the behest of my father. My mother did not want the separation and continued to be against it until her dying day. However, to the observer, it was apparent that after the separation my father carried on his life in much the same manner as he had ever done, whereas my mother blossomed. She found new friends, new activities, a new way of life and had a much richer existence altogether than she would have had coupled with my father. Could it be that this personal experience may be affecting the way I am seeing the Brexit phenomenon?
I suspect that Brexit will prove to have been a much better thing for the EU than it will be for Britain. Britain is leaving so that it does not have to change. It can go on being the kind of country it has always been with all the attitudes and customs that made it so difficult for it to fit in to the EU. There will be less immigrants, especially less talented ones. Already the number of people with good qualifications coming to the country has dropped markedly and some existing ones have left. During the debate there was much suggestion that the National Health Service could be better off after Brexit but it seems the most immediate effect will be a substantial loss of doctors and nurses. With a less cosmopolitan country attitudes will become narrower and progress will become more difficult.
Britain has always been a trading nation and it will survive and may find some new trading partners. A lower pound will encourage exports. However, it also makes the country vulnerable to overseas speculators and asset strippers. Much is said about the importance of Britain being able to make its own decisions, but there is no prima facie reason to suppose that the decisions made will be any better for that. Mrs May wants an independent Britain to be forward looking, but I fear that quite the opposite will be the result.
The rest of the EU broadly regrets Britain leaving - “we miss you already” - but, in fact, Brexit will tend to bring them together, give them a common cause, make them take the task of moving Europe forward more seriously, and also, in many ways, make it easier to do so. Britain was always going to resist the centralising tendency that will now become more prominent and which is essential if the EU is to prosper and develop. There has been a change of tone in international dialogue since the arrivals of Brexit and Trump. The other day Jean-Claude Juncker made the comment that if Trump did not stop advocating that other countries leave the EU, he might start advocating that large states like Texas should leave the USA. Now it is not likely that any other state will leave the EU soon nor is it likely that the US will break up, but the fact that people in the positions of Trump and Juncker are saying such things tells us that the tone of discourse is changing. More fighting talk from the EU is likely to be quite consequential. It was a sign of greater confidence in Europe and a way of telling the US "Don't talk down to us - we can play that game too."
The Brexit negotiations will start with an argument about how much Britain must pay toward the things it has already committed to that it is now trying to walk away from. Hard-line Brexiteers will say that it should not pay anything, but this will simply scupper the negotiations completely. This issue will, presumably, cause a good deal of dissension within the UK as well as between the UK and Europe. However, in the long run it is not such things as competitive advantage or who pays who what that will make the crucial difference. It is the impact upon spirit and morale that will have the deeper effect. It does appear that the UK can hardly escape being on the back foot in these negotiations. The EU can do without Britain and has no need to concede anything. The British negotiators actually have very few cards to play. In that respect they are like the light brigade charging into the cannons - it can look very glorious, but there is no chance of winning. The EU will set the agenda and say what is possible and the UK will accept it or leave with nothing and whichever of these two it does there will be bitter remonstration within the UK in the aftermath, especially as a general election will shortly follow.
It may seem almost incidental, but another major stumbling block will be Gibraltar. Spain is never going to agree to any deal that does not involve a substantial concession by Britain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar. However Gibraltar voted even more overwhelmingly than Scotland against Brexit for that very reason. (In moments of wilder fantasy, one wonders if Scotland, N Ireland and Gibralter could form a new united kingdom, excluding England).
The whole business will be financially disadvantageous to the UK and the pound will probably fall further as the consequences become clearer, but it will be the sense of losing that will strike more deeply into British pride. There has to be a danger that this will set up a long term antagonism that will be difficult to overcome. The British press will somehow have to make it seem that it is the EU's fault that Britain comes off badly and this may worsen the xenophobia that set this process going in the first place. Not a happy prospect. However, on the EU side, any such antagonism would not really be disadvantageous. History shows that having a hostile neighbour does wonders for solidarity and this is exactly what the EU needs at this stage. I hope it does not go that way, but it has to be a distinct possibility; one that few people are likely to discuss openly at this stage for fear of rocking the boat at such a critical time.
Not much has happened yet. The British government has said it wants simultaneous discussion of trade, security and terms of leaving. Within 24 hours the EU has said that is not how it is going to be done and the UK has no choice but to do as it is told. That pretty much sets the tone. What a sad business it is.
One aspect of this scenario is that we are heading toward some kind of crisis over who is permitted to make the decisions. At present the Westminster government takes the view that the Scottish parliament can say what it likes but the whole UK is leaving the EU because Westminster says so and they have the power. Legally this is correct, but there will be many who are unhappy about it. The matter is complicated because of the amount of ambivalence everywhere. Scotland, even now, would probably reject separation from the UK if a referendum were held on it, even though most Scots want to stay in the EU and know that by staying with England they will not do so. This produces a happy-to-be-unhappy situation. Theresa May is clear, efficient and decisive and so far has carried parliament with her. There is no guarantee she can keep this up all the way to the next general election in 2020, however. It is all rather fragile underneath what is made to look like a solid front. Another aspect is the fact that in the Westminster parliament the opposition is weak and divided while the governing party is enjoying a semblance of unity (that it does not want to lose) that it has not enjoyed since the time of Margaret Thatcher.
If we play the game of inventing unlikely scenarios, then perhaps Gibraltar should become an independent member of the EU and offer an easy route to citizenship as a Gibraltarian to any British person who wants to continue to be a European citizen. Of course, they might then find they had more citizens than they had room for on the rock, but I'm sure something could be worked out on a timeshare basis. :-)
Ten things achieved by Brexit (and it hasn't even happened yet)...
1. The eurozone economy is on the up with prospects of poaching a good deal of UK business.
2. House prices in London are tempting international buyers (because the pound is low).
3. The EU27 is united as never before, agreeing its strategy in a debate that lasted all of one minute.
4. UKIP and other populist parties are past their peak.
5. Donald Tusk (that pleasant chap from Poland) has emerged as an important EU leader
6. After a Brexit vote that was substantially anti-capitalism, anti-corporatism, anti-globalism, Britain is heading for the biggest conservative party majority since the days of Harold Macmillan (you remember - the "You've never had it so good" chap). So logical, don't you think?
7. Expenditure on trivia is in decline since people in UK already have less money in their pockets.
8. For the first time immigration to UK from the EU now exceeds immigration from all other countries (basically because people from other countries have taken UK off their list).
9. Amongst EU immigrants to UK, the professionally qualified are in decline while there has been a surge in unskilled workers from Bulgaria and Roumania (was this what Brexit voters intended, I wonder).
10. Britain's foreign policy is no longer unpredictable. It is now firmly under the control of the USA and its consistently reliable government.
It is fascinating how political process occurs. The British press (and, maybe, the public too) have woken up to the fact that the Brexit negotiations are going to be difficult and that it is quite on the cards that no trade treaty agreement is reached in the next five years, let alone before 2019. This is all the result of the report in a German magazine about a dinner party attended by Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker. The facts highlighted by this report are not new. As many commentators are pointing out, they have been well known and quite obvious since... well, even before the referendum. The EU generally takes quite a few years to hammer out any trade deal and in this case it has been made very clear that negotiations on a deal will not start until the "divorce settlement" has been agreed. This will involve a wrangle over "maintenance" (how much Britain should pay) and "child care" (the rights of EU citizens in UK and UK citizens in EU). It is very likely that this argument will grind to a halt. The British government would lose a lot of face with its electorate if it agrees to what the EU will demand and the EU will (semi-secretly) experience intoxicating glee in saying to the woman who is now standing in Margaret Thatcher's shoes "Non, non, non!" However, untii. this impasse is crossed trade negotiations look unlikely even to begin.
Where does this leave things? There seem to me to be three possibilities. The UK could just go its own way with no agreement. I think this is unlikely. Half of UK trade is with the EU and facing tarifs on that would be extremely costly for Britain. The souring of relations would also hit UK "invisible" exports - insurance and the like - that are even more important to UK than trade in goods.
Or, some sort of agreement may be reached. This is slightly more likely, but as already pointed out there are a lot of obstacles to be overcome.
The third possibility is that there is an interim agreement to spin out the time. In other words, it may be agreed that UK will not leave the EU in 2019, but several years later when a trade agreement has been hammered out. Five years is a long time in politics. One year is a long time. Public opinion shifts. Perceptions change. Right now UK trade with the EU (according to the last quarter's figures) is still increasing, largely because the EU economy is strengthening. By 2020 and beyond, the pros and cons of leaving could look very different. Also, of course, (ironically) since younger people mostly voted for Remain and older ones for Brexit, even if everybody still alive voted exactly the same, a second referendum in 2021 might well give a different result.
Reviewing what I wrote just over a month ago it is interesting to see how much has changed and what has come true already. The Conservatives - perhaps sensing the things I wrote about - have dissolved parliament and decided to have an election now while they are ahead before the real impact of Brexit has hit home. Probably only just in time. Although the pound is weak, British exports are not taking much advantage. Already there is a slow down in consumer spending. Wages are not increasing. The Bank of England say (today) that economic growth will return eventually if Brexit is "smooth" - well, how likely is that?
Here are some quotes from the BBC business page today:
"Construction output fell again in March"
"The pound has come back [down] a little after the shock of poor UK economic data earlier today"
"March’s simply dreadful trade figures demonstrate that Britain is failing to capitalise on sterling’s depreciation"
"The Bank of England has said growth had fallen "markedly" in the first quarter and added a "slowdown appeared to be in train"... a squeeze from Brexit-fuelled inflation on household income has begun.... there will be a squeeze on consumers this year"
"More gloom on UK living standards outlook"
So, Brexit full steam ahead and nothing to worry about, huh?
France has a new President who seems quite dynamic and intent upon making France more competitive. As for Brexit negotiations, they have not yet even begun. The EU is and will be, one assumes, in no hurry - on the one hand, they have the advantage and, on the other, they have other things to think about. As I predicted, Brexit is leading to a much more pro-active attitude among EU leaders. The eurozone economy is picking up and this gives some flexibility for solving problems that have been dogging them for some time, not least the problems of Greece, Portugal and other areas that have fallen behind, but there will also be positive initiatives for centralisation, democratisation, developments on defence, economic integration and so forth. These are not small matters and one can imagine that for Macron and Merkel (or her replacement) Brexit will, much of the time, not be at the top of their agendas.
When I read the British press I see a good deal of chauvinism, but I do not see it being grounded in the empirical situation. I'm sure some people genuinely believe that Britain is going to be stronger and greater once it has cut its ties with the EU, but all the indicators point the other way and have done so since before the referendum when virtually every independent economic think-tank made it quite clear that the consequences were going to be negative. Rationality does not seem to be my compatriots' strongest suit.