Brexit botch reveals a Dis-United Kingdom

By ARTHUR I. CYR | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 8, 2019

LONDON — These are hard times for the United Kingdom, which includes the British regions of England, Scotland and Wales plus Northern Ireland.

In 2016, a confident Prime Minister David Cameron, fresh from the 2015 general election victory of his Conservative Party, held a referendum. The election voting had bestowed on the Conservatives a narrow but clear parliamentary majority in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats, partners in the coalition government of 2010-15, were no longer needed and found themselves ruthlessly jettisoned.

The referendum was expected to confirm the nation’s involvement in the generally unloved but economically beneficial European Union. Instead, contrary to what polls predicted, those who voted chose by a narrow margin of 52% to 48% to withdraw from the organization.

What followed might be compared to the colorful characters and wild bizarre antics found in the classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” In that story, Alice follows a hurrying rabbit down a hole and enters a world of intense surreal conflict and fantasy.

Likewise, the debate over Brexit — the shorthand term for leaving the EU — has been dominated by emotion and strong feelings regarding involvement with the rest of Europe rather than dispassionate discussion of the hard facts of trade and investment.

After the referendum, Cameron resigned as prime minister and then retired from Parliament. Theresa May emerged in the Conservative Party as his successor. She had favored remaining in the EU, but immediately reversed course to reflect the strong anti-Europe feelings in today’s Conservative Party.

May initiated exceptionally complex withdrawal negotiations with EU officials in Brussels, brought home enormously detailed proposed agreements and was repeatedly defeated in Parliament by large majorities. Her own party is divided on the matter, and her total inability to manage people or events led to her resignation.

May steps down this month after a successor is chosen. The eccentric, controversial Boris Johnson is the front-runner to replace her.

Northern Ireland is a source of special difficulty in Brexit, potentially explosive in nature. The province has a sizable Protestant majority at the northern end of Catholic Ireland. Ireland also is strongly committed to the EU, and a neutral nation, while Britain is committed to the NATO alliance.

After several decades of renewed violence from the radical wing of the Irish Republican Army, the British government achieved a power-sharing peace agreement. Leaving the EU jeopardizes that fragile stability, and the May government has been careful to pursue “backstop” agreements to keep Northern Ireland in the economy of Ireland.

This Northern Ireland dimension draws attention to the defense, national and international implications of Brexit. The EU has never established a substantial collaborative military dimension despite fitful efforts over the years.

However, Britain is a strong, dedicated member of the NATO alliance. If the nation leaves the EU, that could provide incentives for greater Anglo-American and wider alliance military cooperation. The two nations already have strongly established cooperation in intelligence matters, along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, termed the Five Eyes.

Meanwhile, separate local government and European Parliament elections in the U.K. have brought significant losses to the two main parties, Conservatives and Labour, while smaller parties made impressive gains. Those include the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the new Brexit Party, established by Nigel Farage in January this year. Previously, Farage led the UK Independence Party, which now is fading.

In 2016, Farage and staff members visited the Republican National Convention in Ohio, where he endorsed Donald Trump. On the same trip, federal officers arrested Farage staff member George Cottrell on numerous charges of money laundering, wire fraud, blackmail and extortion. After a plea deal, Cottrell was released from U.S. prison in March 2017.

Given current trends, the Conservatives almost certainly will lose their House of Commons majority and another coalition government is probable.

In the children’s classic, Alice provides impressive examples of calm pragmatism. The British need those qualities now.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”

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