Britain is a trading nation, surely one of the greatest in the history of the world. Its empire was built on trade and not built initially on political ambitions. Once built, politics and political struggles had to feature, but they were not what it was all about. This may not have been true in the medieval era when feudal and dynastic forces were primarily in play – for example, the Angevin Empire, the reining in by Henry II of his feudal barons in Ireland and the Hundred Years War. But in the Modern era the driving forces were trading ambitions and explorations seeking more lucrative trade.
And so it still is today. The United Kingdom joined what is now the European Union – significantly it was still the European Economic Community then – for reasons of trade. That Community already had a political purpose in its DNA but Britain – perhaps naively – chose to ignore it, or think that this would really never come to anything. Britain has a political self-identity which means it would never allow itself to be politically subject to any alliance or coalition of European nations, even a benign one.
The satirical portrayal of Britain’s relationship with the European Union portrayed in the BBC’s Yes Prime Minister 30 years ago has more than a grain of truth in it.
So where is this trading nation now, in the aftermath of Brexit? Not very far, we might suspect, from where it wants to be or needs to be to keep itself on track as a leading trading nation in the world.
Brexit has now freed Britain from the political bonds which she saw relentlessly tightening on her by the well-intentioned semi-democratic – if we accept the standard definition of democracy – alliance which is the European Union. She may now say to herself, “now that’s done, and I’m glad its over”, and get on with what she does best – trading.
But will the sulking members of the European Union whose political bonds she has unceremoniously and shockingly severed now want to make life difficult for her. Will they want to punish, as some have threatened, her by thwarting her trading ambitions. Not likely, for the simple reason that to do so would be to make life difficult for itself. Sensible people do not usually bite off their noses to spite their faces.
While political union remains an ambition of the EU, it knows very well that such a union has no future if trading principles and economic well-being are neglected. The leaders of the Eu will now sit down with new Prime Minister Teresa May and her team-GB and hammer out a trading agreement which will be as much as possible like that which has been operating over the past 20 years and evolving for 40 years. For the EU to come to that negotiating table looking for revenge is the stuff of tabloid journalism. They will be looking for the best deal for them – and the best deal for them will be essentially “more of the same”. If an important component of your car’s engine breaks down you set about repairing it to get yourself moving again. You do not discard it in a fit of anger and hope for the best. You repair it. You may replace it with a better model – but you cannot ignore it.
The silly remark by Jean-Claude Junker, in response to Brexit, that “the British vote has cut off one of our wings, but we are still flying” was wryly commented on by a letter-writer in the Daily Telegraph who said, “Presumably the direction is round and round in circles.” That would be about the height of it if Junker’s attitude were to prevail.
The Daily Telegraph reported speculation today – in the light of the bizarre economic growth figures reported for the Republic of Ireland yesterday – that Ireland might be the hardest hit nation of the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. No, she won’t, for the very same reason that the EU will be looking for as little disruption as possible in trading arrangements between all the nations which up until now have made up the Union.
The only negative prospect for Ireland now is a political one. With the UK in the EU there was some hope of a brake on “ever closer union”. Now there is none. Ireland now is at risk of losing whatever was left of the sovereignty she won almost 100 years ago by exiting the United Kingdom. When she attached her carriage to the European Economic Community over 40 years ago, like Britain, she did not give much thought to loss of sovreignty. Since then, however, she has felt the gradual erosion of this and the tensions associated with it. That tension was manifested in two futile rejections of EU treaties – in both cases she was sent back to think again and on each occasion humbly submitted to the greater authority.
With the United Kingdom’s weighty and contrary carriage now politically uncoupled from the EU train, Ireland can expect to see a High Speed Rail transformation and find herself, sooner rather than later, coupled to a sovereign federal state. She may have to think about that and ask herself if this is what she really wants, as she currently celebrates the 100th anniversary of the rebellion which led to her decoupling from another Union.