Brexit and the slide into nationalism

Sitting on the Heathrow Express last week, returning from a short trip to Berlin, I found myself composing a speech for Mrs Theresa May - to be given the day after the Brexit negotiations have broken down irretrievably.

The Prime Minister is seated behind her desk in Downing Street. A Union Jack is visible in the corner of the room. Mrs May tells the British people that, despite the unstinting efforts of her government, the United Kingdom and the European Union have been unable to reach an agreement. She has to warn her fellow countrymen that difficult times lie ahead.

There will be severe disruption to trade and travel for an extended period of time. There is likely to be a serious recession. Britain had made a democratic decision to leave the EU. But the EU has proved unwilling to accept that decision and negotiate a fair deal. Instead, it is determined to punish the UK.

Now comes the Churchillian riff. Lowering the timbre of her voice and staring straight into the camera, Mrs May says that some European politicians seem to believe they can humiliate Britain and bend the country to their will.

Clearly, they have no knowledge of the history or nature of the British people. A country that has defeated Hitler, the Kaiser, Napoleon and the Spanish Armada has no reason to fear the bureaucrats of Brussels, or the governments of Malta and Slovakia. A quick reference to Shakespeare and the "sceptred isle" and an appeal for national unity, and the speech would be over.

I was rather shocked to find how easy it was for me to compose a speech like that, on a short train ride. After all, I am a "Remoaner", who voted against Brexit, and I still cling to the hope that it will never happen. If I can reach effortlessly for the language of nationalism while stone-cold sober on the Heathrow Express, what could the journalists of the tabloids do or the backbenchers of the Tory party?

Members of the pro-EU group Open Britain protesting outside the Houses of Parliament. The Brexit negotiations are starting with the two sides miles apart, and the British government may eventually conclude that it has no option but to play by the EU's rules, the writer says. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

All this could be dismissed as idle fantasy. But the danger of a slide into nationalism and confrontation is real - on both sides of the channel.

The Brexit negotiations are starting with the two sides miles (or possibly kilometres) apart. After meeting Mrs May last week, officials from Brussels briefed that the British Premier's demands are "completely unreal" and that she is living in a "different galaxy".

The British, for their part, regard the EU's demand for a €60 billion (S$91 billion) divorce settlement as outrageous. The EU says trade talks cannot begin until the Brits have agreed to pay up. But that position is also seen as unjustified and punitive in London. Senior figures in the British government may eventually conclude that they have no option but to play by the EU's rules. It is possible that, fortified by a large majority in the June 8 election, Mrs May can find the political space to make painful concessions, and face down the resultant rage in the media and her own Conservative Party. But it is more likely that what Brussels regards as indispensable, London will find impossible.

That means talks will inevitably break down - and then angry rhetoric will surge on both sides of the channel. Popular culture and the education system have produced a fairly pronounced "finest hour" reflex in most British people, which is susceptible to an appeal to glorious isolation. (It is epitomised in the David Low cartoon from 1940 of a soldier on the cliffs of Dover, captioned: "Very well, alone").

That means that if and when negotiations with the EU go badly wrong, it will be easy for nationalists in Britain to blame the French and Germans, and to make an appeal for sacrifice and national solidarity that will drown out the appeals to reason of the remaining Remainers.

And while the Europeans like to argue that their position is dictated by reason and law - and not by any desire to punish Britain - there are, of course, some on the other side of the channel who will enjoy the opportunity to humble the arrogant Brits. I have certainly seen the occasional involuntary smile from European officials, as they explain how the reimposition of Customs procedures could lead to long lines of lorries on British motorways, stacked up miles from the port of Dover.

Beyond the issues that flow directly from Brexit, there is a plethora of long-buried resentments against Britain that can come tumbling out when the negotiations get nasty. Mr Gianni Riotta, an eminent Italian journalist, already spots an "anti-UK rage in the EU upper echelon".

The EU, which has been troubled by divisions over everything from the euro to refugees, is currently enjoying the unusual unity of purpose that Brexit has produced among the other 27 member states.

The British hope this unity will crack as the negotiations become more difficult. But it is just as likely that the EU will find that confrontation with Britain continues to serve as a useful rallying point for an otherwise-divided organisation - and as a focus for the anger at everything else that is going wrong inside the union.

I will keep the notes from my Heathrow Express speech. They might make interesting reading if and when Mrs May gives her own version, in a couple of years' time.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Brexit and the slide into nationalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe