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Britain’s Confused Soul in the Age of Brexit

Britain appears to be abandoning core virtues – its ability to be ruthlessly wedded to a realistic pragmatism and its relentless pursuit of its own commercial advantage

By: EBR - Posted: Friday, April 27, 2018

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The British still have no realistic plan of how to proceed in their future relations with Europe. They do have a long wish list. The British side also still pins high hopes, in the same way as the Chinese do, on winning individual EU member nations for their cause and thus splitting the EU 27.
The British still have no realistic plan of how to proceed in their future relations with Europe. They do have a long wish list. The British side also still pins high hopes, in the same way as the Chinese do, on winning individual EU member nations for their cause and thus splitting the EU 27.

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by Stephan Richter* 

The Germans and the British have much more in common than they are usually willing to admit. History plays – and especially two wars during the course of the 20th century – a big role in that. Against that backdrop, the fact that the encroaching reality of Brexit opens up a deep trench yet again is especially unfortunate.

As the participants at the recent 68th German-British Königswinter conference, held in Oxford, could experience firsthand, a great deal of surrealism still hovers over the British Brexit maneuver.

The British still have no realistic plan of how to proceed in their future relations with Europe. They do have a long wish list. The British side also still pins high hopes, in the same way as the Chinese do, on winning individual EU member nations for their cause and thus splitting the EU 27.

For Germans, this is particularly hard to comprehend. After all, the British appear to be abandoning core virtues – in particular, their ability to be ruthlessly wedded to a realistic pragmatism and their relentless pursuit of their own commercial advantage.

Unfazed by that assessment, the British side feels pleased that the Germans seem to have finally dropped their hope of a repeal of the Brexit.

Heartless Germans

However, when it is pointed out by the German side that the British also have to cope with all the consequences of the exit maneuver, they consider that at least heartless. Occasionally, they resort to more martial expressions.

What is new on the German side is the clarity with which the consequences of the exit maneuver are described. Instead of fumbling around as usual, even the representatives of German companies in Britain are no longer beating around the bush in their assessment of the situation.

They are clear about Europe’s reality of increasingly tightly-timed supply chains. Fitting into that is of extreme importance to an island economy. A smoothly functioning import and export regime – i.e., staying in the Customs Union – is considered a prerequisite. Otherwise, the British side is told, count on us having no other choice than to relocate production facilities to the continent. That, of course, will have direct consequences in the UK labor market.

Despite all British insistence on Brexit, the Germans are still scratching their heads. Given that the UK is a traditional football nation, the British should know all about avoiding own goals. Instead, the UK seems keen on shooting a whole series of own goals via Brexit.

Under those circumstances, it may not come as a surprise that Downing Street No. 10 exercises an extremely intense form of language control over all comments on Brexit from the British side. Indeed, this control freakdom has Chinese features.

Despite all the British emphasis on the finality of Brexit, one still feels reminded of a trial separation in the context of divorce proceedings. But just as with Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff, the couple at the center of the Sky series “Billions,” the audience still wonders about the separation maneuver. The couple still enjoys each other a great deal – and truly appears to need one another.

Splendid isolation

As regards Britain’s economic future, one thing is for sure: British workers are not served well by the pursuit of “splendid isolation.”

This is also the area where Germans and Britons could achieve much in common. That is especially apparent when you look at the efforts of Greg Clark, the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He has not only talked about the need for a detailed “Industrial Strategy” for his country, but actually delivered one.

That is a miracle in itself because the pursuit of such an approach has always been considered an anathema in the United Kingdom. It is traditionally frowned upon, especially in conservative circles, as the work of the devil — worse, the EU devil.

In reality, this strategy could serve the UK well in the long term to increase its prosperity. Especially British industry has gained much momentum in the last two decades thanks to its ever closer integration into continental European supply chains.

Instead of building on that track record of British re-industrialization, the Tory government insists on the EU exit. In the rare honest moments, this maneuver is justified with British unhappiness about the EU, where it is forced to play second fiddle. That this is largely due to British reservations about joining the club goes unmentioned.

Directing the Commonwealth

What is deemed as much more British is to stand alone and rather conduct a smaller orchestra – even if it is just the Commonwealth. But this, too, is a pipedream.

Of course, the group is reminiscent of British imperial times. But without India, with which the UK will have a very hard time negotiating a free trade agreement, and excluding Britain, all Commonwealth nations account for less than 3% of global economic output. No one can build a serious trade strategy on this.

This is one more reason why the German participants in the excellent Königswinter conferences still believe that the traditional British pragmatism must at some point resurface. The pursuit of its own commercial advantage is deeply encoded in the DNA of a trading nation like Britain.

For now, the British side still continues to ride on the fumes of strange principles held sky high. In that particular regard, they now seem to strive after an approach to policymaking that is usually associated with being utterly German – and one that has tended to serve the Germans very poorly in the past. The more fixations come into play, the worse the outcomes. London could do worse than to think about that lesson of German history.

*Publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist
*First published in theglobalist.com

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