LONDON – Few individuals are capable of seeing clearly how they appear to others. Politicians and the peoples they represent tend to be equally blind. Nostalgia for past glories or mistaken memories cloud their vision. We all need a dose of realism
Prime Minister Theresa May’s Jan. 17 speech on Brexit was more realistic than some recent statements by British ministers. She set out what Britain wanted to achieve and stressed that Britain was not trying to undermine the European Union. But it took little account of what the other 27 member countries want from the negotiations or the difficulties facing the EU.
In any negotiations one party can always walk away, if the deal is not considered good enough, but it was neither necessary nor wise to spell this out as May did. The danger with making threats, which if carried out could seriously damage Britain’s long-term interests, is that the threats may be regarded as bluff, which the EU may be tempted to call.
May drew attention to the British contributions to European security and reminded her audience of Britain’s position as a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, but while Britain does meet the NATO criterion of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, British defense chiefs are concerned by the reduction in the strength of the army and navy. Britain has better equipped forces than most other European powers, but it is no longer a major military power and needs to work closely with Europe to defend its national interests.
May underlined the fact that the British economy and employment have been growing, but she was understandably silent on the economic problems facing Britain. These include likely inflation as a result of the fall in the value of the pound and inadequate investment in infrastructure. Britain also has a balance of trade problem, which is exacerbated by a lack of growth in productivity.
Sectors of the British economy, including construction and horticulture, need workers from the EU. Care homes catering for Britain’s aging population and the National Health Service depend on reinforcements from the EU. Yet May regards the curbing of immigration from the EU as a “red line.” To achieve this dubious requirement she is prepared to accept serious damage to the British economy and social services.
Britain has some of the best universities in the world, but curbs on immigration from outside the EU are already causing problems for our universities.
Britain boasts of “the mother of parliaments” and of its parliamentary democracy, but May did not to give her speech in Parliament. She insisted that the referendum gives her authority to leave the single market and to cut immigration from the EU despite the fact that these were not questions in the referendum and despite the fact that her party won the last general election on a manifesto, which included support for Britain remaining in the single market.
May is prime minister of the United Kingdom, but on Brexit the kingdom is not united. Scotland voted by a large majority to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland also voted by a small majority to remain. Wales, like England, had a majority in favor of leave but it has benefited considerably from EU funds.
The views of these devolved administrations are supposed to be taken into account by the government in its Brexit negotiations, but among the many unanswered questions, May has not said how to establish immigration controls and yet maintain as promised free movement between Northern Ireland, which is a constituent part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland in the south.
The Brexiteers speak glibly about the willingness of Australia and New Zealand to conclude trade agreement with a U.K. outside the EU, but they don’t mention the fact that almost half of British trade is with the EU on Britain’s doorstep.
May spoke about the importance she attached to free trade, but her speech and those of her ministers have given little sign that they have understood the complexities of trade in the globalized world economy. Tariffs are now relatively low for most manufactured products. The main problems are non-tariff barriers including rules of origin. U.S. President Donald Trump apparently wants to conclude a trade agreement with Britain, but his protectionist agenda and May’s support for free trade are at odds with one another.
Many Brexiteers suffer from an unrealistic nostalgia for Britain’s past glories, which can never be recovered, and for the British Commonwealth, which was never more than a group of nations with historical ties to Britain.
Britain is a middle-ranking power of some 65 million people of mixed cultures and race situated off the shores of Europe. It has much going for it including, fortuitously, the English language. We shall make the best of our heritage if we are realistic about our position and limited power and rid ourselves of delusions of grandeur.
Britain and its politicians are not the only ones who need a dose of realism. Trump with his call “to make America great again” also needs to take a realistic view of what is achievable and what is likely to cause serious damage to long-term American interests. America cannot succeed alone and needs allies. A realistic understanding of the threat to America’s interests from Putin’s Russia and of the dangers of confrontation with the superpower, which China has become, is essential.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as a result of his world travels and his meetings with foreign political leaders from Obama and Trump in the United States, Russia’s Putin and Duterte in the Philippines, should have a realistic picture of how Japan stands in the eyes of foreign leaders and of the strength and limits of Japanese power, but some of his pronouncements suggest that he still harbors illusions about Japan’s past history. Does he have a realistic concept of how Japan with an aging and declining population can confront the technological challenges in the dangerous world of Presidents Trump, Putin and Xi?
Brexiteers and Trump’s enthusiastic backers regard realists as unpatriotic pessimists, who like experts and fact finders who expose false news, are traitors to the populist philosophy they espouse.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
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