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Article 50 & the Politics of Breaking Up

Article 50 has been triggered. Two years from now – and this still seems surreal to write – the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland will no longer be a member of the European Union. It has been a long time in the making (both the fermentation of anti-European sentiment and the inter-interregnum between last year’s referendum and yesterday’s letter of discomfort) and the divorce proceedings have now formally begun. What started as a fringe movement in the early 1990s has now reached its zenith. The phony war is over and the clock is now remorselessly ticking down.

The thing about the future is that we don’t know what’s round the corner. Try planning two years ahead. The main problem for Britain post triggering is uncertainty. What happens if the global economy starts to tank? Is there then a facility for suspending the negotiations? Will the renewed push for Scottish independence take on its own momentum as voters in Scotland react to the hypocrisy of a government from London saying ‘do as I say, not as I do’? As a consequence, will leaving the EU out of pride and shame at the refusal to admit a monumental mistake of accepting a non-binding referendum be the end of the United Kingdom?

If you read the Tory Press, you’d be forgiven for thinking that countries around the world are queuing up to make trade deals with Britain. The Rabid Right say they’ve taken back control. Fine. The mess is theirs now. Yet the tabloids, UKIP’s leaders, the right-wing blogosphere and the ‘head-banger’ element in the Conservative Party are in the ascendant. They have won. Most of them won’t feel the effect of job losses, recession, inflation, racism or a shrinking of the welfare state. They’ve won. And they’re not getting over it.

Reality, though, being what it is, has a tendency to bite. Germany has already dismissed any talk of parallel negotiations with the EU. The next two years are about packing up your stuff and getting out. It would be better for all if we remained civil. But you’re the one who wants out. We’re not going to make it easy for you. Oh, and by the way, settle your bills with us before you go. Don’t let the door hit you too hard on the way out, Bye. Donald Tusk’s reaction as head of the European Council was different in tone; the outcome may be the same though.

Perversely, the Tory Right are now dependent on the World becoming more chaotic (or, in Silicon Valley-speak, ‘disruptive’. The Brexiteers (and, sadly Theresa May too) have already reached out to an authoritarian and corrupt White House regime. They hope to deepen ties there. Fantasies about new global trade deals, 19th Century style, abound. There may be some arrangements made. But now is not the time for the 27 remaining EU members to be picked off. The ‘Leavers’ need a Le Pen win in France to keep their dream alive. They are beckoning the darkness.

Theresa May’s position is not good. She is either a captive of the Right, an enthusiastic convert to their world-view, or someone who’s been a ‘sleeper’ all along. She seems to believe – as do the hapless Team Corbyn – that European Union membership is an incidental detail. Once the exit procedures have been agreed and the new relationships established, Britain can revert to politics as normal. Neither she nor Jeremy Corbyn get it, there is no taking back control. The four freedoms that will be needlessly abandoned mean that it is hard to see how there’s a win in any of this for Britain,

And the loss isn’t just economic. It is cultural. The absurdity of the likes of an Australian-turned-American Billionaire and a public school educated city trader trying to claim that ‘elitism’ has been vanquished, is all too apparent. Britain is as much a part of Europe as Ireland is. The Empire ended nearly 60 years ago. London is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. But to listen to Brexiteers, they want to turn the clock back to the supposed good old days. Well, surprise, surprise, the world has moved on. The Brexiteers haven’t. The more pig-ignorant of them are proud of that.

Donald Tusk’s tone was apposite. It could have worked out if the other party had given it a go. They’re not even sure if they want to leave. But the European Union can’t hang around waiting for someone to suit themselves. The relationship, as it was, is over. They will probably be friends now, possibly even good friends. The partnership is finished though. So long, Britain. You’re not going to do any better. I feel sorry for you. Look after yourself. We’re now going to go our separate ways. It is the end of the affair.

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