Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

The long goodbye: making sense of Brexit from Japan

by Philip Patrick

Special To The Japan Times

“Are the British crazy? How can they leave Europe? It’s mad!”

This was the unusually forthright response of one of my students in our first post-EU-referendum class. From the nods and murmurs of assent, it seemed to represent the general feeling of the group.

Somewhat taken aback, but in the interests of fairness and critical thinking skills, I played devil’s advocate and posed the class a hypothetical: Would the Japanese people be happy to cede sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats abroad, accept the authority of a pan-Asian supreme court and allow unlimited immigration from across Asia? Oh, and pay handsomely for the privilege?

The response: “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous!”

This exchange revealed quite a lot about how the vote was perceived here in those chaotic early days.

First there was the shock, mingled with sympathetic concern, at the foolhardiness of the British, akin to that felt when a family member, previously known for their conservative and predictable behavior, alarms us with a spasm of wholly uncharacteristic recklessness — like a kindly uncle suddenly ditching a loving wife of 40 years and running off with a lap dancer. Several people actually approached me to offer condolences — “I’m so sorry about what is happening in your country.”

Then there was the confusion. It became exhausting repeatedly explaining that the U.K. was not — is not — “leaving Europe,” an oft-repeated inexactitude that conjured images of the unmoored British Isles drifting off into the North Atlantic. In fact, the U.K. had voted — narrowly — to leave a politico-economic union of 28 European countries. Significant, but perhaps not seismic.

The response from Japan is surprising given the parallels with Britain, and our common anxieties. Japan still romanticizes its sakoku period of splendid isolation, so you might expect more sympathy for euroskepticism. And fear of an influx of foreigners, not to mention fiercely defended conceptions of national identity, echo the concerns of Britain’s leavers. But the general view from Japan seems to remain that Brexit is bad news. The Japanese government even made a rare intervention at September’s G-20 summit, issuing a warning about the possible consequences of Brexit to trade.

Seven months on from the vote and much has changed, much hasn’t. Britain is still very much in the EU — though it is no longer invited to the after-parties. The anticipated collapse of civilization failed to materialize, save for the plunging pound. This hasn’t impacted the U.K. economy much, as yet, but has proved a boon for Japanese shoppers, and made London, for the first time ever, an attractive budget destination. Well, almost.

The stars of the “leave” campaign have gone their separate ways, like a splintering pop group unable to cope with the pressures of unexpected success. Former U.K. Independence Party leader and Marmite man (love him or hate him, just like the spread) Nigel Farage left to align himself with Donald Trump and is now touting his services as a sort of nakodo middleman in the unlikely courtship between Trump and new British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Ex-Mayor of London Boris Johnson was appointed foreign secretary, possibly to grant the appearance of importance to a leading Brexiteer while keeping him permanently out of harm’s way. And former Education Secretary Michael Gove, after somehow managing to end both his and “friend” Johnson’s hopes of being PM with one blow, has been consigned to the back benches.

This leaves the Brexit heavy lifting largely in the hands of May, along with veteran lieutenants David Davis and Liam Fox. Our fashion-conscious PM is tasked with triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — which begins the divorce proceedings — and then securing a “deal,” ideally bespoke, though possibly made-to-measure, since no off-the-peg solution is available.

The prevailing mood remains one of bafflement and unease. Every day brings fresh confusion, with terrifying scenarios of ruin and mayhem countered with optimistic visions of sunlit uplands and glorious opportunities. The debate is polarized, fierce and hyperbolic, the tone bitter and occasionally shrill. To their opponents, supporters of Brexit are racist and stupid, while “remoaners” are characterized as self-righteous, naive, virtue signallers. And bad losers to boot.

The enmity is exacerbated by the uncertainty, particularly acute for us Brexpats in Japan, who have the added worry that potential changes to immigration rules, already complex enough, will complicate plans to return to the U.K. with our Japanese spouses. But it is just possible that something vaguely resembling discernible options are beginning to emerge from the fog. So what are they?

First there’s the “Hotel California” scenario, referencing the lyric “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” According to this scenario, Brexit will simply not happen, with events unfolding like an episode of the classic TV comedy “Yes, Prime Minister,” in which PM Jim Hacker would always begin with a seemingly brilliant idea that would then be dismantled, and ultimately abandoned, through the ingenuity of the real power brokers, the civil service mandarins.

Brexit could go like this because, uniquely, it is a policy without a government, opposed by the majority of MPs, as well as, crucially, the civil service, the very people whose cooperation is necessary to see it through. And give someone a job they don’t want to do and they are unlikely to do it well — as I remember vividly from my days teaching eikaiwa (English conversation school) kindergartens.

Another option is the traditional British fudge, in which Britain sort of leaves — what columnist Peter Hitchens describes as going from “half in to half out” of the EU. The fudge scenario sees Britain join the European Economic Area, a kind of EU halfway house. On the plus side this would mean a modicum of sovereignty reclaimed and minimal disruption to trade, but it would still see the U.K. subject to the most contentious elements of EU membership (the European Court and the four freedoms, i.e., free movement of goods, people, services and capital).

Then there is “hard Brexit” — or “real Brexit” for those who see no other variety. Here the U.K. actually does leave, either with a juicy trade deal or without, in which case we would revert to World Trade Organisation rules. Some see real danger here — it has been referred to as Britain “falling off a cliff” — while others think resultant tariffs could be managed, and would in any case cost less than the savings from our cancelled EU subscription.

The truth is nobody is quite sure. Except perhaps Kunio Mikuriya.

Who he? Well, just as the Schleswig-Holstein Question was famously understood by only three men, the consequences of a hard Brexit might be comprehensible to a similarly tiny number. But that number would probably include Mikuriya, University of Tokyo graduate and secretary-general of the World Customs Organization, under whose auspices Britain trades with the EU and elsewhere. Given Mikuriya’s position and understanding of world trade regulations, September’s friendly warning from Japan should be taken seriously.

Negotiations, scheduled for April, will be a poker game, but it may be the wild cards that decide the outcome. Donald Trump is one; an Anglophile (Scottish mum) and chum of Farage, he is pro-Brexit and has promoted the U.K. from Obama’s “back of the queue,” in trade terms, to somewhere nearer Trump Tower’s golden door. The blow-dried blowhard is certain to make his views known, as probably will PM Shinzo Abe, given Japan’s heavy investment in the U.K.

Then there’s Italy, whose upcoming election could lead to the rejection of the euro. A Marie Le Pen triumph in France might trigger a “Frexit.” Then we have Holland, Germany (more elections), not to mention Algeria (with an ailing president whose death could bring about an Islamist uprising and another migrant crisis). And let’s not forget Greece, nor the possibility of another global financial crash.

A lot of ifs, buts and maybes there, but none of these scenarios are all that unlikely, and if only a few eventuate it could lead to a fourth possibility: the jenga scenario, whereby the EU, probably secure enough to survive the removal of one block — the always half-hearted U.K. — could be brought down by a combination of shocks in quick succession.

Whatever happens, the long goodbye looks set to be very long indeed and will likely contain as many subplots as a Chandler novel, and with no guarantee that the loose ends will be tied up neatly. But the prolonged agony may have its up-side: Time heals all wounds, and as it gradually becomes clear which half of the population got it completely wrong, there will be ample time to stock up on humble pie, make dignified dismounts from high horses, or just think up some good excuses.

And at the end of it all, those in Japan as baffled by Brexit as my students will have an answer to their question: Are the British crazy? I know what I think.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a university in Tokyo. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp