LONDON – Experts and analysts have been busy looking for various “models” or “solutions” on which to base a firm new relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, once the British break away. Hope is being expressed that some kind of grand, overall bargain can be negotiated in Brussels in reasonable time and matters will then quickly settle down.
Unfortunately this may be a wish too far, leading only to disappointment. While many practical neighborhood issues need to be discussed and reformed, the day when everything is tied up neatly in a new and settled parcel may never come.
This is for a number of very basic reasons.
First, on the British side, there is no consensus or prospect of one as to what the relationship should be.
Some say the answer is a clean break, with the U.K. “accessing” the European single market just like many other major exporting countries round the world manage to do, with reasonable success, like, for example, the United States, Japan or China.
Others insist that membership of the single market, or a version of it, remains the priority. Others in contrast argue that stronger control of immigration comes first. And yet others again question whether the formal process of detachment from the EU, laid out in Article 50 of the last great EU treaty (the Lisbon Treaty of 2009), should ever be triggered at all. Legal experts differ about the right way to proceed.
Meanwhile the key departments of government are at loggerheads and Westminster Parliament is filled with factions that will cheerfully try to block any compromises either way, whether they lean too much toward complete separation, or lean too much toward staying close to the EU.
A second reason to doubt a clear or early outcome is that the EU itself is undergoing huge changes under the impact of technology and global trends, at a speed that few policymakers either side of the English Channel seem to comprehend .
Not only do big political upheavals loom, but digital technology advance is delivering an explosion of new methods, new business models and new production processes that makes most past thinking about markets, trade deals and flows obsolete. Big data, platform technology, blockchains and totally digitalized production mean that most producers can operate in multiple markets simultaneously, using increasingly what are called agile manufacturing techniques and minutely targeted customer identification. New global supply chains, linking the processing and assembly of numerous products and services, now snake across the planet.
In short, the European single market of tomorrow will be nothing like the single market of the 20th century or even of today. It will be perforated almost into shapelessness. Its rules and regulations will be chasing products and processes that it can no longer reach, and whose origins will be impossible to pin down, since almost everything will have been made everywhere.
Negotiating with the old EU will be negotiating with yesterday and trying to tie up permanent new arrangements that will be outdated and overtaken before they can be implemented.
The American thinker Anne-Marie Slaughter has captured this new world better than almost all the European analysts when she speaks of Europe becoming “a mixture of unity and flexibility, an organism that can act simultaneously together and apart.”
What this picture confirms is that the rigid and so-called fundamental principles on which the original EU rested in the last century — absolute freedom of movement of labor, of capital, of goods and services, all within a defined protected trade zone, and underpinned by a philosophy of integration and standardization — are now under continuous challenge. The certainty that business longs for, the tightly fixed and permanent new arrangements, are just no longer there. A kind of Europe of constant bargaining will be the norm with which industrialists and investors will have to learn to live.
No grand overall bargain between the U.K. and the rest of the EU may therefore ever be reached. Minds both political and academic have simply not adjusted to the new fluidity and the enormous potential flexibility that the digital age not only allows but imposes on international behavior and commercial exchange. The EU has to be viewed not as a fixed system but as a revolutionary ongoing process. By not fully recognizing this the U.K. could be heading for a further period of disappointment, tensions, rival ambitions and bewilderment — a dangerous brew in any society.
How much this political turmoil will have on actual economic performance and progress is another question. There have been many dire predictions. But away from the political hothouse the U.K. seems humming with enterprise and innovation, and fully tuned into the advancing digital age, with employment at a record high level.
Business and the body politic seem to have come curiously detached. It could be that while European leaders and their political supporters argue, struggle to adapt and find new relationships all round, (of which Brexit is only one part), globalized enterprise, linking small and large enterprises, processes and production, constant information and data exchange, all sails on regardless with its own momentum.
In the words of the old Arab proverb “the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.”
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.
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