Brexit Blues, Continued

Photo by Sam | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Sam | CC BY 2.0

In a piece in CounterPunch published in January I indicated how the UK’s Brexit roll-out was chaotic and incoherent.  Since then matters have not improved.

The UK has been desperate to sign trade deals to replace the EU-sponsored deals it will no longer be a party to when Brexit occurs.

Theresa May has crawled before foreign leaders for trade deals with little real success.  She even signed a weapons agreement with the Turkish despot Erdogan, knowing full-well the weapons will be used against the Kurds and Turkey’s internal dissidents.

On the home front, May lurches from one Brexit approach and scenario to another.  The only consistent thread in all these meanderings is the desire to limit defections from her party’s right wing to the far-right UKIP.

May has managed this by taking a Brexit position virtually indistinguishable from UKIP’s, enveloping herself in the cloak of a bogus patriotism, as she implements the Tory dream of a privatized, deregulated, low tax and low wage, “gig” job dominated, law-and-order Ukania (to use Tom Nairn’s term).

Not that the chaotic UKIP, changing leaders every 2-3 months in an unending internal strife (including a fist-fight between two of its representatives at the European Parliament in Strasbourg which led to the hospitalization of one of the brawlers), offers much that is worth emulating.

May, the ultimate “woman without qualities”, does not have an ideological bone in her body apart from an undeclared overarching weddedness to neoliberalism (she finds it easier and more convenient to blather on about “patriotism” and “British values”).  Holding on to power at all costs is the quintessence of her politics– everything is viewed by her as a means to this end, and if not, as a tiresome distraction from what really matters.

She voted “Remain” in the Brexit referendum but has since converted herself into a hard Brexiter.  For all we know, May could be something else tomorrow, depending on what is said by the latest focus groups and opinion polls.

Meanwhile Brexit’s complexities persist.

If May is determined to show no daylight between herself and the hard Brexiters, the EU is just as resolved to make certain the UK’s exit will distress it to the maximum extent.

Apart from Germany, the EU project, unabashed in its neoliberalism, is viewed with varying degrees of ambivalence by its other member states. So best make an example of the renegade UK, as a way of discouraging those (Greece?) who may be tempted to follow the defector in jumping ship.

The EU won’t release the UK from any of its financial obligations as an EU member right up to the moment of its exit.  This divorce “settlement” alone is projected to cost the UK €60bn.

Still to be resolved is the issue of the status of EU residents in the UK.  These tend to be employed in the key financial and health sectors.  The bloated and parasitic financial sector will take care of itself, but the NHS could find itself in a parlous position, so dependent is it on EU citizens who are medical professionals for its staffing.

Bringing the NHS to its knees so that it will be ripe for a US-style privatization of healthcare is the all but declared aim of the Tories, and this could be exactly what May and her Tory colleagues may try to accomplish with Brexit as their alibi.

Also to be determined is the status of UK residents in other EU countries.  Many of these are retirees in the warmer and less expensive Mediterranean countries, older people with significant healthcare needs relative to other sections of the population.

Reciprocal arrangements for their healthcare, under the auspices of the EU, will cease when Brexit occurs.  Will they be cut loose to fend for themselves, or will the UK and the EU create an arrangement which gives them continued healthcare in their EU countries of residence?  So far nothing has been decided, and if this remains the case, millions of elderly Brits will have to trek back to their rainy and chilly country of origin simply in order to provide for their medical needs.

These older Brits will be unhappy citizens with the right to vote, though most of them are Tory in every bone of their frail bodies.

Also vulnerable are students, both from EU countries studying in the UK and UK students studying in EU countries.  The right-wing Daily Telegraph says that “In 2012-2013, 5.5 per cent of students studying in the UK were from EU countries, generating £3.7 billion for the UK economy and generating 34,000 jobs in local communities, according to Universities UK”.

The same newspaper reports that the EU’s Erasmus study-abroad programme had, in the 2013-14 academic year, nearly 15,600 UK students spend up to a year in another European country through the initiative, up 115% since 2007.

In 2012, UK students in French universities made up 1% of the total enrolment in French higher education.  The University of Maastricht in Holland alone has 500 UK students.

The UK’s switch to an American-style tuition driven model of education funding (initiated by Tony Blair and continued since) has made the EU countries, where tuition is free or nominal, an increasingly popular destination for UK students, especially since English has now become the language of instruction in many European institutions.

Brexit will require many of the above arrangements for students to be abandoned or revised, with outcomes that are highly uncertain.  The Tories have never cared much for public education, preferring instead to view education as an ensemble of high-priced finishing schools for the children of those with big bank accounts.

It’s doubtful therefore whether higher education will be given any kind of priority by Theresa May and her colleagues in the Brexit negotiations.

Also to be resolved is the position of Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted against Brexit, in a future United Kingdom.

A few days ago, Theresa May gave a speech in Scotland where she tried to make a case for its remaining in the UK, using virtually the same arguments advanced by anti-Brexiters for the UK’s continued membership of the EU!

The irony was not lost on her listeners, and she was lampooned in nearly all quarters for her hypocrisy.

A hard Brexit will almost certainly prompt the Scots to call for a second independence referendum, and the outcome this time is likely to be in favour of Scottish independence.  The Scots won’t be gulled by false assurances this time.

Given its troubled history, the north of Ireland presents a more intricate post-Brexit case.  The agreement between two sovereign states belonging to the EU (Eire and the UK) created a power-sharing arrangement between the two northern Irish communities– unionist/Protestant and nationalist/Catholic– long at loggerheads with each other.  The northern Irish anti-Brexit vote was motivated in large part by the perception that an EU framework, as opposed to a Westminster parliament dominated by England and delinked from the EU, is more likely to safeguard the cross-border cooperation crucial for continued peace in the north of Ireland.

In any event, the border between the north and the south of Ireland will harden when the UK leaves the EU (the north being the only part of the UK sharing a border with another EU country), thereby creating a potential barrier to UK-Eire cooperation whose implications will have to be worked out.

If the power-sharing arrangement in the north of Ireland breaks down, the only option will be direct rule from Westminster, a recipe that had limited success when it was tried in the past.  Given this, it not surprising that a solution involving a united Ireland has become increasingly palatable to people in both parts of Ireland since the Brexit referendum.

After Brexit, the wheels may finally come off the Ukanian jalopy.


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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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