Brexit and memories of the Somme

More than a decade ago, I had a curious conversation with Mr Nigel Farage in a restaurant in Strasbourg. The outgoing leader of the UK Independence Party told me that his hobby was leading tours of the battlefields of World War I. He said he was sure that, if it came to it, Britain could again summon up the martial spirit that saw it through the Great War.

I thought of that conversation last week as Mr Farage celebrated Britain's decision to leave the European Union (EU), and Europe commemorated the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Mr Farage, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of person the war poet Wilfred Owen had in mind when he warned against those who told war stories to "children ardent for some desperate glory".

At this moment of triumph for the political ideals of Mr Farage, it is important to realise that this is a dangerous moment for Europe. We are faced with a choice between two paths. The first leads to reconciliation between Britain and the EU. The second leads to an increasingly confrontational relationship between Britain and continental Europe.

If the political mood calms on both sides of the Channel, the path to reconciliation is still the easiest route for both sides. However, it is important to realise that there are also strong forces that could easily push Britain and the EU down the path towards a dangerous antagonism.

The emotional impact of the Brexit vote should not be underestimated. Many Europeans see it as an act of repudiation by the arrogant Brits - and would enjoy seeing Britain learn a painful lesson. British voters who fail to understand this emotion might consider how frostily the English would have responded if Scotland had voted for independence in 2014.

There are also practical and political reasons why the EU is likely to drive a very hard bargain. Many governments in Europe will hope that Britain's folly can be turned to their advantage - and are actively seeking to attract jobs from Britain.

At this moment of triumph for the political ideals of Mr Farage (centre), it is important to realise that this is a dangerous moment for Europe. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESS PHOTO AGENCY

Several European governments also face strong domestic challenges from anti-EU parties. Mr Francois Hollande of France, who faces a presidential election next year, confronts a powerful challenge from the far-right National Front (NF) - which is demanding a referendum on French membership of the EU; and the Dutch government is under similar pressure to agree to an EU referendum. So it is in their political interests that post-Brexit Britain should be seen to suffer.

The EU institutions in Brussels, which will guide the negotiating process, also have an interest in making things difficult for Britain to discourage any other EU nations from going down the same path.

The European Commission's current position is that the two years of negotiation, starting after Britain gives formal notice of its decision to leave the EU, must be devoted solely to negotiating the technical terms of the divorce: details such as who pays the pensions of British EU officials. The commission insists that only after Britain leaves the EU can the two sides sit down to negotiate a new trade deal. Such an arrangement would obviously put Britain at a massive disadvantage.

As it dawns on the British that the EU genuinely intends to play hardball, so Britain's calculations are likely to change. Initial hopes of a good deal could give way to panic and then to bitterness and anger.

A sensible and unemotional British government would scale back its ambitions and prepare the ground for a tactical retreat.

However, a British government run by Leavers - and spurred on by the anti-European press - might opt for a very different path. Faced with a united and unfriendly EU position, the British would start looking to break down European unity - and might even begin to regard the ultimate break-up of the EU as in Britain's interests. This could lead the British into seeking out some pretty unsavoury allies in Europe - such as the Freedom parties in the Netherlands and Austria, the Alternative for Germany party and even France's NF.

On the economic front, if the British found themselves outside the EU's internal market and facing tariffs, they would also have to consider some radical alternatives.

The obvious choice would be to adopt an offshore-island strategy - Mr George Osborne, the Chancellor, has already announced plans to slash taxes on business to attract foreign investment. Freed from the constraints of the EU's rules on state aid, the British might also look to adopt a much more active industrial policy.

Many of these actions would be regarded as unfriendly acts in Brussels - and so the cycle of antagonism between the EU and Britain would increase. European leaders have always insisted that the EU is a "peace project" - designed to prevent future battles like the Somme. The current thinking in Brussels seems to be that the survival of the EU and its peace project makes it unthinkable to make new "concessions" to keep Britain inside the club.

But EU leaders should rethink - and realise that the bigger danger lies in allowing divisions and antagonism to once again poison the relations between Europe's largest powers. The Leave campaigners in Britain also urgently need to temper their euphoria with an understanding of the dangers of the process that they have unleashed.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit and memories of the Somme'. Print Edition | Subscribe