Why Britain left

If you want a palimpset of reasons for why the UK brexited the European Union, look no further than Bloomberg’s headline:

“EU Will Propose Crisis Tool for Supply Chain Emergencies: Bloc wants ability to require certain orders be prioritized; Plan expected to be made public this month; some see overreach.”

OK.  And then the detail:

“The European Commission wants the power to force companies to fill orders within the European Union first during times of crisis, or risk fines.

According to a draft document seen by Bloomberg News, “the Commission may, in exceptional circumstances,” require companies to accept such priority rated orders of “crisis-relevant goods.””

Well it sounds reasonable.  But then:

“If they don’t, companies could face fines up to “1.5% of the average daily turnover in the preceding business year for each working day of non-compliance,” the draft said.”

Hmm. So that may be why:

“ … Nine EU countries — including Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands — warned this summer as the proposal was being drafted that it could overstep the bloc’s authority.”

The policy springs from the EU’s well-remembered failures in coordinating the actions of its member states in the early stages of the Covid pandemic.

If enacted, the powers to suspend private contracts and direct company production would represent a remarkable restraint – and indeed control – of trade.  But arguably on the lines of the powers of the US government in similar circumstances, its supporters would retort.

What is less clear is why the combined national powers of the EU’s 27 member states to manage crisis (under the wise guidance of the EU) are not enough.

The EU policy rests on the truism that because elected national governments find it hard to cooperate, power must steadily aggregate at a higher level. So far the traffic has been one way.

Now, while the UK government dealt better with the vaccine and medical supply issues that so embarrassed the EU, many would say that since Brexit it has been no slouch itself when it comes to generating bad policy.  

But you could also argue that it hasn’t built an instrument for its creation; that it is clearly responsible when it fails; and that it is less overt in taking failure as a reason to push policy further.

And these coordination issues are not mere technical problems, they are the essence of politics.

Take the biggest issue of the year: Ukraine.

The actions of the German government (and those of a few other European countries) suggest they believe their economic and security interests are served by appeasing Vladimir Putin – up to a point.  Others very much do not. So agreement on a meaningful EU common policy is impossible.

In this instance, you might agree that’s not good. But do the benefits of a political union which would allow a single body to enforce a common foreign policy (including say a decision to go to war) outweigh the costs of political diversity in a continental union with nearly 500 million citizens?

Great exam question. Discuss.  Additional marks will be awarded for incorporating America’s 250-year examination of the pre-inclusive proposition that all men are created equal.

So Europe’s don’t-look-at-us approach is less a weakness of the European Union, and more a reflection of the diversity of its interests (even if one believes some of them to be mistaken). And conversely, a common policy will arise from shared fear of Russian political influence, rather than different political machinery.

The belief that Europe’s problems are those of political machinery and can be solved by transferring power to higher and more technocratic levels to ensure uniform outcomes, starts to assume the dimensions of a category error (although the average Brexiteer could be forgiven for only intuiting this proposition).

Therefore Europe’s more sensible national leaders will, as Bloomberg reports, perform their traditional function of curbing the EU’s more outrageous demands.

Exiled from this demanding chore, Britain’s new PM will have the less-traditional responsibility of examining and disgorging political responsibilities and associated powers which accumulated during Britain’s membership of the EU and have yet to be reshaped. This will offend many people.

And the sheer scale and all-embracing nature of this task should not be underestimated. Just look at Boris and company’s tortured efforts to reach a compromise which keeps Northern Ireland embedded in the United Kingdom without a further decisive break with the EU.

Liz Truss does seem cheerfully ready to offend many of the right people but one fears that it may take serious economic weather before enough believe it’s really necessary.

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