Britain itself is responsible for ensuring a positive outcome. If it can.
Some of the United Kingdom’s EU counterparties “do not want Britain to prosper”, Prime Minister Theresa May was quoted saying after leaks about the dinner last week between her and Jean-Claude Juncker provoked fierce reactions in London.
Prosperity of its people is one of the EU’s objectives. Once Britain has left, and whilst the EU recognises it has an interest in a prospering Britain (just like it wants, for good reasons, all its neighbours to do well), the prime responsibility for the UK’s fortune will rest with the UK itself. “Making Brexit a success” or indeed ensuring a third country is doing better than its own members is not part of the EU’s mandate – its duty is to make the EU itself successful.
The UK referendum outcome – albeit with a narrow majority and after a campaign shaped by lies – reflects, to a certain degree, a failure of the EU’s mission. The fact that after 43 years of membership a majority of the voters in one of its biggest member states is not convinced that remaining is a good idea, has shaken the Union. Yet, it has also strengthened the resolve of the other countries’ leaders to ensure that the “English virus” doesn’t spread. Not out of rancor but because of their conviction that dismantling the EU would be disastrous.
True, May’s exhortation to “make Brexit a success” is likely to be rooted in Britain’s proverbial pragmatism: “The people have voted to leave the European Union. That’s a fact, so let’s get on with it irrespective of the outcome we may have preferred, and make it a success” is probably how her words should be understood.
Unfortunately for Theresa May, many – not only in the EU but around the world and in Britain itself – are strongly convinced that Brexit simply won’t be a success, regardless of how much and how sincerely you wish it would. That is not saying that Britain will sink once it starts to drift away from its partners, but there are indeed ample signs, and ever more evidence, that leaving the European Union comes at a price for the British people and economy.
The UK’s departure is a lose-lose situation, and it is increasingly clear, even to fervent Brexiters that the negotiations with the EU, will in fact be about limiting the damage. “Making Brexit a success” is a pious wish, something neither Brussels nor the other member states can grant. Britain will strive, against the odds, to make something positive emerge, and the rest of Europe is, in reality, wishing it good luck. Still, making a success of it – or rather succeeding to mitigate its adverse impact – will, after London has “unchained” itself, be the responsibility of Britain alone.
Once it becomes clear to a broad majority across the country that “success” and “Brexit” don’t rhyme there will be a search for those responsible. By asking her European partners for help with the impossible, Theresa May has, wittingly or unwittingly, laid the foundations for the next big Brexit myth. When the current one – that leaving the EU will lead the nation to some glorious uplands – has dissolved, the new myth will be that this isn’t through Britain’s (rather: England’s) fault at all, but because of those “foreigners” who wish it ill. Blame will also be laid at the door of those in Britain who “sabotaged” the process and thus allegedly prevented a better outcome. You can trust the xenophobic instincts of the tabloids as well as the conspiracy theorists to copiously feed such a narrative.
In other words, part of the UK’s establishment and its more rabid media have started to look for scapegoats for the failure of Brexit, both at home and across the Channel. They are beginning to understand, or at least to fear, that there could be dire consequences for the UK, but don’t take responsibility. Quite obviously, the rest of Europe will not accept to be incriminated by a lie even bigger than the one that lead to Brexit in the first place.
“You break it, you own it”, is a famous slogan used by retailers. You wouldn’t expect a shop to foot the bill for an item on display that you negligently, recklessly or even deliberately broke. Still, this is what Britain appears to be suggesting. Worse: By stating “let’s make this a success”, its Prime Minister is asking the shop managers for help in turning the broken item into something better than it originally was.
The views expressed in this column are the personal ones of the author.