What Madness is this?
Today’s meeting of the European Council (25 November 2018) endorsed the EU withdraw agreement. In the words of European Commission President, Jean Claude Junker:
“To leave the European Union is not a moment of jubilation. It is a moment of deep sadness.”
“There are no smooth divorces.”
It is a day to weep.
With its characteristic professionalism and generosity, the EU has enabled some sort of agreement. Virtuoso work behind the scenes by negotiators means the deal that has been negotiated a lot better than it might be — though still well short of simply staying in the EU.
But it is a day to weep.
It is a fortnight since European leaders gathered to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War — the “Great War”, the “War to end all wars”. The determination to end war in Europe is what called the EU into being.
The brutal reality is that we are either heading towards peace or away from it. In the UK breaking away through Brexit, we are turning away from the path of peace. That doesn’t mean war tomorrow, but it is a foolish thing to do.
Our European partners know this. The goodwill they have shown in negotiations is a genuine attempt to mitigate the damage. But it is damage.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, among those reacting to today’s news was Nigel Farage, advocating an immediate hard Brexit. His folly in this stands in marked contrast to the cover of this week’s Economist, depicting the reality of hard Brexit as a train careering over a cliff.
Brexit doesn’t mean war. But remember the lead up to the Second World War, with serious economic difficulties in Germany fuelling the rise of the Nazis.
The Economist is right and Farage is wrong: a hard Brexit would do huge damage to the UK. All forms of Brexit do significant damage. Those who voted Leave out of anger at being ignored or a desperation for change because things are so bad “they can’t get any worse” face being hammered. That is the situation that does fuel extremism.
Arguably, politically-motivated austerity fuelled the alienation expressed in the Leave vote. David Cameron was reckless in calling a referendum to silence critics in his own party rather than engage with the alienation it was creating.
The genius of the initial plans for what is now the EU was that they recognised that people make mistakes. The idea was that coal and steel were the raw materials for mid twentieth century warfare. In creating the European Coal and Steel Community (precursor of the EU), those industries were integrated. The logic was that, while treaties can be broken, this actually made war impossible. Mistakes were inevitable, but this stopped a mistake becoming a catastrophe. They’ve changed since then, but the institutions of the Coal and Steel Community included an assembly, which has matured into the European Parliament, and the beginnings of the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. It gave a way for Europeans to listen to each other. A way to deepen understanding and stop mistakes becoming catastrophes.
That is something to be proud of. Stepping away from it is deeply shameful. These are dark times.