Why Brexit will be well down among EU summit concerns (except for the British)

LONDON CORRESPONDENT:  As Europe drifts into a hot and torpid summer, there are signs that politics are not what they used to be.  Events are harder to manage when the balance of opinions underlying political formulae change and rising forces must be accommodated. Nowhere more so in dealing with migration – or the underlying questions of identity and society which it poses.

A New Zealander going to Europe after a long absence cannot fail to notice how different the streets of the cities look.  But the numbers show that there is a strong case to be made for the capability of modern societies to assimilate large numbers with great speed and success.

The accompanying political correctness can be tiresome and, to some, offensive.  The indigenous minorities which feel they have been crowded out have so far been safely ignored (a recent documentary on an obscure London regional TV channel was entitled ‘Last Whites of the East End‘).

But through the noise, there are indications that the nature of the debate is swinging from the practical advantages and disadvantages of migration to concepts of responsibility and sovereignty.

Don’t assume that this means the debate will become simpler or clearer.  The American historian Bruce Catton, writing on the origins of the Civil War, memorably talked of the difficulties in “... reflecting on the limitless implications of the concept of the universal brotherhood of man” (or, more pithily, the idea of one’s brother’s keeper).

Consider events across Europe in June:

  • In central Europe, the leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Austria met to signal that they are challenging the Europeansettlement on migration and borders, and looking for tighter borders and migrant processing outside the EU.  The Polish and Hungarian governments clashed with European institutions on issues of constitutionality and sovereignty.
  • The recently-elected Italian government challenged the European consensus. Italy’s unelected president (appointed by a previous parliament) declined to appoint the nominated finance minister on the grounds that he had been insufficiently supportive of the European common currency.  Then, earlier this month, the Italian government declined to take responsibility for a ship carrying illegal migrants launched from the African littoral (tiny Malta’s government also said no).
  • A temporary fix was achieved when a new and more-European-minded Spanish Government agreed to take the migrants.  It is unclear if this represents a change in policy or a case of virtue signalling.  The absence of a popular mandate for the Government – it arrived in office after its predecessor lost a no-confidence vote earlier in the month – makes the latter more likely.
  • Nor is Germany well-placed to provide leadership. Angela Merkel’s coalition of the losers (her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats each lost about 20% of their parliamentary seats in September’s general election) has neither a mandate nor the inclination to tackle difficult issues.  Against her wishes, her interior minister has threatened to start turning back illegal migrants arriving at Germany’s border at the end of June.  Mrs Merkel will be hoping that the EU leaders’ meeting on Thursday gives her enough to keep her party together, but, like Spain’s gesture, the measures are more likely to temporise than to resolve.

This means Brexit will be well down the list of concerns at the EU leaders’ summit. Except for the British of course.

During June, the British Government has been trying with increasing desperation to compromise its way out of trouble, as it steers exit legislation through parliament.  But as well as being less interested, the EU leadership is less inclined to compromise.

Theresa May’s administration seems to be heading towards ‘interim arrangements‘ of unclear duration, with significant levels of customs alignment, adoption of (perhaps increasingly unfriendly) European regulation, continued jurisdiction from European courts and perhaps even a fudge on sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

Facing both ways makes one more likely to see only the difficulties but the British Government gives the impression of being more worried by what might go wrong than of what could be got right.

Brexit raises many of the same issues for the British as migration does for continental Europeans.  If more of the British public see this as an issue of principle, namely sovereignty, rather than one of compromise and political management, the Government could be in trouble.

A recently-announced increase in health spending may be an effort to deflect some attention from the likely Brexit deal.  The Government must be hoping for continuing English success at the football world cup and a return to the traditional cool English summer.

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