• Friday, June 14, 2024
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Brexit and the march of folly


Like everybody else, I was really stunned by the outcome of the much-awaited British referendum on EU membership which took place on Thursday 23rd of June. A friend working at BBC in London had woken me up in Abuja at 6.30 am on Friday 24th to ask what I thought regarding the outcome of the vote. With a sleepy voice, I asked to know what the outcome was, believing the nays must have had it. With a subdued voice, she told me that the ‘Brexiteers’ had won 52% against 48 percent. I was speechless for almost five minutes. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the great British people would ever vote to overturn membership in a regional economic grouping that has brought them growth and prosperity for the better part of forty years.


Of course, the vast majority of those who voted to leave must have had their compelling reasons for doing so. A deep-seated undercurrent of Euroscepticism has always been a part and parcel of the British political mind-set for as long as I can remember. It goes as far back as Winston Churchill. After 1945, the great wartime prime minister had gone to Europe and North America campaigning strongly in favour of unification of the people of Europe. But when the Rome Treaty establishing the European Common Market was being signed in 1957, Britain was absent. When asked why they had not been part of it, Churchill gave the Delphic reply to effect that “I was talking about them, not us”.


Sir Winston was a statesman deeply imbued with a historical spirit. It’s clear that his reading of history led him to believe in Britain’s island exceptionalism. Twice in the space of a generation, Britain had been drawn into Europe’s quarrels, leading to the death of millions of British people in World Wars One and Two. In the Somme, Verdun, Dunkirk, in Flanders, in Normandy, in El-Alamein,in Arras, in Arnheim, in Kohima, in the desert wastelands of the Sahara, British soldiers, with support of their Commonwealth colleagues, fought with bravery to save the world from barbarism. The poet Rupert Brooke spoke for many of the war dead when he prophesied, “If I should die, think only this of me; That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England”.  

Without the determination of leaders such as Franklin Rooselevelt in America and Churchill in Britain, Hitler and the Germans could have imposed a fascist mastery over Europe. The future of the Old Continent and indeed the entire world would no doubt have followed a different trajectory than what we know today. Churchill always believed in the unique destiny of the English-speaking peoples as the New Israel, with a divine mandate to redeem the world and to secure the eternal flame of liberty, justice and civilisation itself. Baroness Thatcher of blessed memory always pitched her tent with the Churchillian vision of the world. She deeply distrusted European leaders such as Jacques Delores and Helmut Kohl whom she believed had an agenda to subjugate the British people under a new German-dominated collective hegemony. While she was all for the single market, trade, business and investment across Europe, she was profoundly sceptical about anything that smacked of a United States of Europe.


For all the undercurrent of Euroscepticim, one never thought it would ever reach such a denouement. Two issues were paramount. The first has to do with the uncontrolled emigration, mostly from the EU member states of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Romania, Hungary and the others. On average, over 300,000 migrants were coming into Britain on an annual basis. When I was in London in April, I was rather taken aback that the receptionist in the hotel I was staying at in Mayfair could barely manage a smattering of English. The streets of London were filled with a babel of tongues from Arabic to Persian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and Serbo-Croat. If you got the impression that English-speakers were becoming a minority, you would not have been far off the mark.


The second factor is the loss of sovereignty. Membership of the EU ipso facto entails the subordination of English law to European Law. The European Court of Justice becomes the court of final jurisdiction for all member states. Lord Denning, one of the most influential jurists in England for a century, lamented the ‘invasion’ of European law and its ascendancy against every precept of law and justice as the English people have known it since time immemorial.


Anyone familiar with the British system should not be surprised why they cherish their own system of laws as a guardian of their eternal liberties. For more than a century, no English judge has ever been known to have taken a bribe. You cannot say that for the French, for example, where judges are civil servants that are not known to be immune to corruption. Whatever their defects, the English are known for their fair play and sense of justice and moderation. The English parliament, which embodies the sovereignty of the people, has not stopped seating, be it in war or in peace, for the past 300 years. The British people are not only proud of their parliament and system of laws; they are proud of a way of life that has sustained them for the better part of a millennium. Europe, for many British people, represents regression, not progress, as far as law, sovereignty, liberty and justice are concerned.


Underpinning these concerns is the question of security. Britain, like the rest of Europe, has suffered its own fair share of terrorist attacks. There is a deep fear among the British people that uncontrolled emigration will make it more difficult for their government to protect their citizens from the risks of terrorist attacks. Turkey has succeeded in blackmailing the rest of Europe into paying them a ransom of €3 billion annually to control the influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq as they seek to enter Europe through the Mediterranean. The Turks are also insisting that their citizens are given visa-free access into Europe, short of full accession as a member state.


For much of the 1970s, Britain was regarded as ‘the sick man of Europe’. British accession to the European Economic Community was a major factor in its economic recovery. British industry had access to a bigger market. Europe helped to strengthen London as the financial capital not only of the EU but also of the world. Today, Europe accounts for over 60 percent of British exports. A prosperous and united Europe has not only been good for Britain; it has been good for the world.


Today, the whole architecture is unravelling. The Brexit vote is a seismic episode in Europe’s chequered history. For some, it was not altogether surprising. Right-wing Eurosceptic political parties have made major inroads in France, Denmark, Sweden and Hungary. If some of those countries had to organise referenda on the British model, Europe might face nothing less than a doomsday scenario.


It is nothing less than a wake-up call to Europe. I spent five years working in Europe’s capital of Brussels. I became well-acquainted with the workings of European institutions such as the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the Parliament. The Eurocrats it was my good fortune to work with were generally cosmopolitan, consummate and highly accomplished people. Europe is, by and large, a moderate and civilising voice in international relations. Europe is the riches economic bloc in the world, with a GDP of more than US$18.5 trillion. Its 500 million people make up the world’s largest trading region. Europe is the most generous community in the world, giving aid in excess of €10 billion annually to the poorest regions of the world, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.


For many of our Commonwealth countries, Britain in the heart of Europe is always meant that at least we had an influential ally that would speak for us and empathise for us in the councils of the family of European nations. Regrettably, this will no longer be the case.


Many of the regional economic communities in Southern Africa, East Africa and our own ECOWAS are at the verge of finalising Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with Europe. These negotiations have taken the better part of 10 years. To all intents and purposes, Brexit will represent an anti-climax. Countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, with strong historic links with Britain may well have to revisit the finer points of their EPAs, in light of the necessity of negotiating new separate bilateral trade agreements with Britain.


The eminent late American economist Albert Hirschman developed his theory of Exit, Voice or Loyalty as the spectrum of choices opened to actors within national or organisational settings when difficulties occur. Actors have the option to exit the organisation if they feel that there is no hope of ever reforming the organisation. But they can also articulate a strong voice for reform. The other alternative is to simply remain loyal and swallow everything with a stiff upper lip. The British have traditionally been known for their stiff upper lip. But with regard to Europe they were vociferous critics. I watched Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independent Party (UKIP) in his many theatricals in the ornate chambers of the European Parliament. I must say that the venom gripping through his lips left me bewildered on several occasions. But I do not think Farage and his party did their homework enough in terms of how to manage the negative fall-out following Brexit.


Today, the Europeans are urging Britain to leave sooner rather than later. Prime Minister David Cameron has taken a bow and is to remain a lame duck premier until the Tories can find a replacement in October. But the Europeans are insisting they want Britain to leave as soon as possible. Under the rules, a departing member is required to invoke Article 50 of the constitutive treaty as a trigger to begin the process of separation. Some 1.6 million Britons have signed a petition urging parliament to rethink the Brexit vote. Under the British constitution sovereignty lies with parliament, which can decide to upturn the outcome of the referendum. As matters now stand, majority of British MPs are not in support of Brexit. The Scottish people and the Northern Irish, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in Europe. They are already in the process of negotiating a separate agreement with the EU. It is clear that if the Brexiteers have their way, it could see the departure of Northern Ireland and Scotland from Great Britain. That could well spell the dissolution of a union that has made Britain a great power among the nations.


Ultimately, the Brexit vote is a clear signal that all is not well with Europe. For 60 years, the union has guaranteed peace in Europe. It has also been an engine of growth and prosperity. But there is a side of Europe that is forbidding. The aborted constitution that was spearheaded by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was widely rejected because it aimed to impose a unified state upon all the peoples of Europe. That constitution never acknowledged the Supremacy of God Almighty. Nor did it ever as much as acknowledge the Judaeo-Christian ethic that informs European civilisation. Europe, it would seem, has attempted to build the Tower of Babel without acknowledging the spiritual values that have been Europe’s heritage since Emperor Constantine. True, Europe has been a bulwark for the rule of law, for human rights and for the values of civilisation. But that same Europe is an empty shell in terms of spirituality; a behemoth and bureaucratic Leviathan that threatens to swallow up individual freedom, liberty and good conscience. The statesmen of the New Europe have never understood the timeless teaching that “Man shall not live by bread alone”.


Nothing is impossible in politics. Those who insist on a rethink from Brexit may well have a point. But there are no guarantees that parliament will invoke all its constitutional powers to take the British people back into Europe. There has never been such a thing as a happy divorce, especially when, as EU Commission President point Jacques Jean-Claude Juncker pointed out that there was no real love in the first place. If the British decide to leave, they will have to live with the full wrath of technocratic elites who rule over Europe. Britain may become Little England of little or no consequence in the world. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his eponymous theological-political treatise wrote that the City of Man was created by men, and is a temporary, ephemeral city. Men created it and men will destroy it. But the City of God was created by the Almighty Himself, and is eternal and indestructible.


The City of Man that was built in Brussels is, as to expected, an imperfect city. It could be destroyed by a combination of folly, stupidity or cupidity. But human beings are blessed with the power of wisdom and moral agency. I believe Europe can be rescued from its march of folly. We need a more democratic and more accountable Europe – a Europe founded on the spiritual values that have sustained her peoples since the Age of Erasmus and John Locke and Immanuel Kant. We need a Europe that is accountable to its peoples and is sensitive to their spiritual and material aspirations. As the old Prophet Micah once intoned, “He has shown you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”



Obadiah Mailafia