Hell hath no fury like a spurned EU

Britain's Brexit agonies are, indeed, just like divorce but may still be worth it.

I was wrong about Brexit - which I opposed - but I was right that it would be like a divorce. Last June, just two days before the referendum on Britain's European Union membership, I made a prediction: getting a decree nisi after 43 years of marriage would take a lot longer and cost far more than anyone campaigning for the "leave" campaign wanted to admit.

Most people contemplating divorce, I observed, are motivated by two things. First, they see only their spouses' defects. Second, they fantasise about an idealised alternative future. So powerful are these emotions that they are almost blind to the difficulty and expense of divorce. Only slowly does it become apparent that hell hath no fury like a spouse spurned - and that purgatory is staffed by lawyers.

Talks in Brussels between British Brexit secretary David Davis and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier perfectly illustrated my point. "When I read some of the papers that David has sent me," said Mr Barnier on Thursday, "I see a sort of nostalgia in the form of specific requests that would amount to enjoying the benefits of the single market without being part of it." That is just the kind of thing spurned spouses say.

In a similar vein, a newspaper article by Mr Guy Verhofstadt, who represents the European Parliament in the negotiations, read more like a snarky lawyer's letter. Mr Davis needed to be "more honest about the complexities Brexit creates", declared Mr Verhofstadt, instead of "further poisoning the atmosphere".

Ah, yes. In divorce, it is standard practice to accuse the exiting party of poisoning the atmosphere if there is the slightest resistance to the furious party's initial and obviously overstated financial claims. The EU side has dreamt up the hefty sum of €100 billion (S$161 billion) as Britain's gross "Brexit bill" and stated flatly that there will be no discussion of future trade until this has been accepted. This is the equivalent of the spurned spouse demanding the family home, minus the mortgage, and refusing to discuss custody of the children until the deeds have been handed over.

Inevitably, British international trade secretary Liam Fox is starting to sound exactly like a frustrated would-be divorcee. He would not be "blackmailed", he declared, expressing his "frustration that... we're stuck on this separation issue".

"Stuck" is the word. And the way skilled divorce lawyers intensify that stuck feeling is by turning from the big demand to the minutiae. It all seemed so simple just 15 months ago. Remember the euphoric headlines such as "BeLeave in Britain"? One year later, what you need to believe in is the status of cross-Channel commuters, the immunities and privileges of public officials and the fate of goods in mid-production at the point of Brexit.

In short, if you still think it's all going to be squared away by March 2019, dream on. And yet, just because divorce is difficult doesn't stop it happening. Look at the opinion polls. Contrary to what media coverage might lead you to expect, the British public is showing few signs of "Bremorse". If you ran the referendum again, the result would be roughly the same (48 per cent to 47 per cent for "leave", according to Survation's poll in July).

Anti-Brexit "Remain" supporters waving flags along the River Thames, outside the Houses of Parliament, in London on Aug 19. Maybe Brexit is only a divorce for Britain, says the writer. For everyone else these days, it's barely even a distraction.
Anti-Brexit "Remain" supporters waving flags along the River Thames, outside the Houses of Parliament, in London on Aug 19. Maybe Brexit is only a divorce for Britain, says the writer. For everyone else these days, it's barely even a distraction. PHOTO: REUTERS

"The reason divorce is so expensive," a twice-wed American friend once explained to me, "is that it's really worth it." Will Brexit be worth it? Not in the ways that the "leave" campaign led voters to believe, no. All that money that was supposed to go to the heath service? It will go on divorce bills. But it will ultimately be worth it if Britain can finally stop pretending that all its problems are the fault of Brussels. It will also be worth it for jilted Europe if it can now finally get on with fixing its institutions in ways that, as a member state, Britain always resisted.

Those, of course, are two very big "ifs". For its part, Britain remains fixated on the divorce as an end rather than a means. It becomes less and less clear what Brexit is actually for. Is the main objective of Brexit to re-establish control over immigration? If so, "hard" Brexit seems hard to avoid. Britain has to leave the single market. It can't be Norway (in the European Economic Area) or Switzerland (in the European Free Trade Association). It might be Turkey (in the Customs union only). But it more probably wants to be Canada, with nothing more than a free trade agreement with the EU.

Fine. But the negative economic consequences of such a hard Brexit seem likely to cause a sharp fall in net migration anyway. Indeed, those economic consequences may be the reason the public has been drifting since the election towards the idea of a "soft" Brexit. The Labour Party's shift on the issue, masterminded by the shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, is intended to capitalise on that. But remember what soft Brexit means: you accept the EU's migrants and its regulations and you don't have the slightest influence over either. You pay a contribution to the EU budget but you don't have a vote in any European institution. Some divorce.

Meanwhile, what can the continentals make of life without Britain as an EU member? If EU leaders have learnt anything from the experience of the past 10 years, it is surely that the union's institutions are lopsided. It makes little sense to be half federal: to have a Supreme Court and central bank (albeit for most, not all members), but to leave fiscal policy and defence policy almost entirely to the member states. We have seen where this leads in the deeply inadequate response of the EU to three successive crises: the global financial crash, the Arab Spring and then the great wave of migration that followed it.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to establish a European finance ministry and hopes that, if he pushes through a sufficiently Teutonic labour market reform in France, the Germans will grant his wish. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said only that she would support a "small" common budget for the euro zone, and even that is a minority view within her Christian Democratic Union. Her finance minister would prefer just to turn the existing European stability mechanism into a European monetary fund. That would change little.

A week in Europe reminds one that, while Brexit is certainly a divorce for the negotiators who must hammer out the terms of the split, it has a dwindling significance for everyone else on the continent. Most ordinary Europeans moved on some time ago. Like golf club members after a rather difficult member has resigned acrimoniously, all they want now is to get back to improving their handicaps, leaving the club secretary to collect any unpaid dues. Will the club rules now get the overhaul they so badly need? Probably not.

So maybe, on reflection, I was only half right about Brexit being a divorce. Maybe it's only a divorce for Britain. For everyone else these days, it's barely even a distraction.


•The writer is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Hell hath no fury like a spurned EU'. Print Edition | Subscribe