LONDON – What they overlook is the time factor. The ongoing furor surrounding the Brexit issue is filled with impatient demands for deadlines, cut-off dates, final decisions, clean breaks and clear solutions, the latest being that everything must be settled by Oct. 31
But real life is not like that. What is forgotten is that everything evolves, everything takes time, everything changes through time. This applies as much to relations between nations as it does within societies and even within families. You can no more order a living, shifting, pattern of interfaces between societies and peoples to take a new shape on a particular day than you can order a plant to bear fruit on a specific day or to produce new buds at a specific moment.
Of course you can always take an ax to a living entity, and that is what populists and demagogues impatiently demand in the Brexit case. That is what Nigel Farage and his cohorts are loudly calling for in Britain, highly skilled, as they are, at publicity but novices in statecraft. The opinion-formers and proponents on all side in the matter of Brexit could do with some lessons in patience from Eastern cultures and some lessons in gardening from their neighbors.
It was always going to take time, probably several years, to disentangle relations between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union, which had been growing together for almost half a century. But in addition, few people have grasped that all the factors involved are changing all the time and with a speed in the digital age never matched before.
The EU is changing fast; the character of international trade is changing fast; political processes are changing fast; the U.K. itself is changing fast; Ireland is changing fast, both in the north and south. Technology is racing ahead, ensuring that matters which look impossible today — like controlling borders invisibly — become entirely possible tomorrow.
Endlessly repeated cliches, stated as unalterable facts, will have to be discarded. A good example is the constant statement from experts that the EU is the world’s largest economic bloc. Yet the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, bringing Asian countries together, is already far larger. And the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership will be larger still, especially if leavened with some European partners such as the U.K. No one with their eyes on the short term seems to have noticed that.
Very little is certain about the next few years, except for one thing. This is that in five or 10 years the issues will look quite different. The recent European Parliament elections, in which 39 percent of those eligible to vote took part, are as clear a harbinger as one could get that quite different views on how the European continent should be organized lie ahead, with the old centralism replaced with far more diversity and rules made far more flexible.
The EU structure was conceived in an age of economies built on wheat and steel. Today’s economies are mostly services- and data-based. A much more subtle balance between national loyalties and higher regional cooperation is now needed — one that would provide perfectly comfortable space for the sovereignty concerns, migration pressures and entirely new global market patterns that so vexed the British.
All this will take time and will have to be tackled step by step. The forces at work are deep and are taking us into a new cycle in the history of international relations and international commerce.
But meanwhile the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party, fixated on the short term as the media constantly demands, has lost patience with its leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, and now demands change. But that of course will solve nothing. No matter who follows her, the party will remain heavily divided, as will the main opposition Labour Party.
Voices from aspiring leaders to replace May are demanding the October exit deadline — indeed that it should be allowed to operate “by default” (since it is already enshrined in law). But in practice that is unattainable, since Parliament will always block it.
Political voices are asking for another referendum, but that too will settle nothing.
Some talk of another general election — which could easily be the outcome if Parliament remains deadlocked and refuses to support any executive. But even after that no clear solution or settlement can possibly emerge in the short term.
Few on any side seem able to see that the dilemmas of Brexit can only be solved through patience, and the healing and solving power of time. The tensions between centralism and localism in human governance will always be there, and they are increasing in this age of hyper-connectivity.
Over time there will have to be built up some new locus of authority, some new party coalition to sustain a government, using a new tone and language to communicate, offering some focus point that attracts respect and trust, which are now in very short supply.
Blinkers will have to be removed and clearer sight on all sides will have to reveal that as time passes new avenues open, as they always do. Some great issues in human affairs can never be neatly and swiftly tied up and solved. Some things can only evolve and be ameliorated through time. Brexit is one of them. There will be others.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations.