Commentary / World

Options for Britain amid the Brexit mess

by Haruaki Deguchi

Britain continues to be mired in serious confusion over its departure from the European Union. The situation over the stalemate is changing day by day, and we may see a completely different picture by the time this article is published, but the following was the situation as of Thursday.

Prime Minister Theresa May played her final card on March 27 by offering to resign if Parliament accepted her government’s Brexit agreement with the EU, which set down conditions for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. If her tactic proves successful and Parliament supports the deal, Britain will leave the union on May 22. But Parliament had rejected the agreement twice already and, as was widely expected, the agreement was voted down for a third time, further weakening the prime minister’s grip on power. In addition, none of the eight alternative Brexit plans put forward by Parliament were approved either.

On April 3, Parliament passed by one vote legislation that forces the government to request another extension to the Brexit process. It aims to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Why are parliamentary politics so dysfunctional in Britain — the mother of democracy and parliamentary politics? When I visited Britain just recently, I talked with quite a few knowledgeable people about Brexit. What impressed me most was a remark by one of them that there was no answer for the problem, like the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg mathematics problem.

Britain relies on the EU for 25 percent of its exports and 40 percent of its imports. Brexit would be out of the question from a perspective of economic rationality. But the supporters of Brexit cherish the John Bull spirit above all else and detest being dictated to by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The person who made the above remark explained that since Brexit supporters’ feelings are on a different plane from economic rationality, there can be no compromise between the two ideas. Then what should be done? The person said the only way out is to hold another referendum or dissolve Parliament for general elections.

What will happen if the Brexit deal is not accepted by Parliament? The EU has set a new deadline of April 12. Will the no-deal exit become a reality? If that happens, Britain’s economic damage will be incalculable. Brexit is a stupid idea. It would be as if Britain had issued the Berlin Decree of Napoleon, which led to the greatest crisis and nightmare in British history. The 1806 decree placed the British Isles in a state of blockade and forbade all others from doing commerce with Britain.

However, a much greater political problem lurks behind Brexit: the Northern Ireland issue, Britain’s chronic disease. Many people fell victim to the prolonged conflict between Protestant residents, who feel an affinity with Protestant Britain, and Catholic residents, who feel closer to Catholic Ireland. The Belfast Agreement of 1998, which has brought about peace, guarantees the free movement of goods and people. But if Britain leaves the EU, control of the border with the Republic of Ireland — an EU member — will become necessary, thus destroying the premise of the Belfast Agreement.

If one looks back at the history of Britain, it becomes clear that it has been inseparably connected with the European continent. Around the ninth century B.C., Celtic people started settling in the British Isles. Julius Caesar invaded them in 55 B.C. and Claudius conquered most of Britain in 43 B.C. When the Roman empire abandoned Britain in the fifth century, Anglo-Saxons arrived from the continent to take the place of the Romans and later established the Seven Kingdoms of the Heptarchy.

But in the ninth century, Vikings, or Danes, started invading the island. In 1013, Canute the Great, king of Denmark, incorporated it into his North Sea empire. In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered it, proclaiming himself to be King William I, the first Norman king of England. Thus Norman French aristocrats became the ruling elite of the kingdom. For almost 400 years the kings of England held vast territories in France, ruling both sides of the Strait of Dover until the end of the Hundred Years’ War between the English House of Plantagenet and the French House of Valois in 1453.

The end of the war left them ruling a kingdom confined to Britain. But even after that, Britain continued to have connections with the continent. Henry VIII of the House of Tudor broke from the Catholic Church of Rome in 1534 and established the Church of England, marking a new epoch. After the death of Elizabeth I, the second daughter of Henry VIII, England was taken over by the Scottish House of Stuart.

Since the French House of Bourbon was on the side of the Roman Catholic Church, another 100 years’ war started. In what is known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King James II of the House of Stuart was overthrown from the throne of England and the Dutch Stadtholder William III, Prince of Orange, became the king of England.

In this way England overcame the rough seas of the religious war. In 1714, George I of the House of Hanover, originally a German royal house, became the first Hanoverian monarch to rule Great Britain and Ireland. The lineage of this royal house is connected to the present-day House of Windsor.

Since the Middle Ages, wool production in Britain and the wool fabric industry in Flanders had been closely linked. After the Industrial Revolution, the continent became markets for Britain’s industrial products. One can see easily that Britain’s history was woven through its close connection with the continent. In short, Britain cannot prosper without it.

Given such a history, I believe that Britain has no other pragmatic options than the following two: (1) accepting the government’s Brexit deal or (2) postpone, through negotiations with the EU, the withdrawal for an extended period and in the meantime hold a second referendum or dissolve Parliament to hold general elections in order to review the Brexit policy.

It was Prime Minister David Cameron’s political decision that opened this Pandora’s box. He decided to hold the referendum believing that people would vote to remain in the EU. What happened reminds us anew what great weight a leader’s decisions carry. This is not limited to the sphere of politics. The same thing can be said of the world of day-to-day business operations.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.