By Tim Potier
It would be fair to say that few expected the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union last June. The look of surprise (or shock even) on the faces of those who had campaigned for Leave the next morning indicated that even they had calculated that it was probably a bridge too far. The result was close, but it was clear. Since then, sensibly, a period of preparation has ensued, accompanied by a “phoney war” of words; but, on Wednesday, after having secured the necessary parliamentary approval, Prime Minister May finally invoked Article 50. Thus, the clock will start ticking; a two-year period of negotiation within which time an agreement will hopefully be reached between the departing member and the 27 which will remain.
The negotiations may need to be extended, although the UK government will want to avoid this. Any extension requires unanimity on the part of the 27. I have no doubt that this would be granted, but what is less widely appreciated is that any deal will require the approval not only of the UK, but the remaining 27 by qualified majority: defined, in such a case, as at least 72% of the members of the Council, comprising at least 65% of the population of the Member States (without the withdrawing state).
I have never hidden my strong opposition to my country leaving the European Union. Truly, as an Englishman, I remain deeply ashamed at what my compatriots have done. For the United Kingdom’s standing and reputation in the world, I believe it is catastrophic, and I regard it as the nation’s biggest strategic mistake since the Norman Conquest in 1066. The protestations of Brexiteers that they wish the UK to be a global trading nation cannot disguise, for me at least, the ugly side of our national psyche that I hoped we had erased. And what is this? An arrogant sense of our own self-importance, a belief in our own superiority looking down at foreigners as if they are second (or even third) class human beings, justified by our history of empire, celebration of resistance of foreign incursion and portrayal of how we (almost) single-handedly won both the First and Second World Wars. Attitudes and sentiments all combined and reflected in the words of Rule Britannia, an anthem I do not believe I will ever sing again.
As referenda on such important questions have a habit of doing, the country is deeply divided. I returned to the UK to live seven months ago. You can feel it. There is a tension in the air, decorum is largely being maintained, but you sense that it would not take very much for things to erupt. During the past nine months, the country has talked about little else. Now the onset of negotiations will consume our attention for at least another two years and, quite possibly, for God knows how long. And then you wonder, as I have wondered from the outset, will it all be worth it in the end?When push comes to shove, will the people want to leave the EU, or will they change their mind, when they begin to realise the consequences of doing so?
It has been easy, to date, for Brexiters to advert the new trading opportunities that will present themselves, but I have no doubt that the leading institutions and sectors of our economy will demand (and therefore make sure) that their own interests are protected; by which time, I conclude, we will hardly end up leaving, even if we still end up doing so. Add this to the simple truth that time is not on the Brexiteers’ side. The over 45s, who voted in heaviest numbers to leave, will each year thin. The youth of the UK, who already, by a large margin, feel European as much as they feel British, will not want to have their futures constrained by way of the consequence of being regarded as nationals of a third state.
It remains the case that there are few issues which I have a very strong opinion on. I hope this is reflected each week in this column. However, I believe there is no other issue I feel as strongly about as Brexit. Throughout my career, I have been accustomed to proposing solutions to problems, but this is one issue, by way of recommendations, I suspect I will remain highly reticent about; for I will not collaborate with those who have done such harm to my country. Sorry.
Dr Tim Potier is Principal Lecturer in Law at Coventry University