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September 27, 2021

On Brexit, Ireland, and the future of the UK

The topic announced by the title is the background of the demonstration that politics is an art, it does not obey any rigorous planning, that to conduct a grand strategy in this field is basically more of an issue of political intuition than of imagination determined by elaborate intentions and planning. Hence, in today’s world, a world of such accelerated developments, with so many vectors involved in determining a historic event over the short and medium term, or even over the long term, there is the need for an extremely well-prepared political elite, for leaders with an acute sense of outlook assessment, aware of the possibilities and of how much they can serve the sought-after goal, but also capable of seeing it fit, at the right moment, to sacrifice their own advantages for the sake of compromise, if not to actually abandon the plan made in order not to risk defeat.

It is, I could say, an admirable example of what is called unpredictability in politics and the imperative – demanded from the leadership – to bravely face the unknown and to adjust your own objectives to the existing possibilities and to the unexpected negative developments.

Here is, in its main lines, the example that, in our opinion, confirms the abovementioned things. Undeniably, this is the most recent one, because such examples are frequently found in the immediate history, on all meridians, from the Afghanistan invaded by the Soviets in 1979, to the Iraq of the post-2003 invasion, or to Turkey’s assertiveness in the Middle East, launched well over a decade ago in what many called the grand strategy of “neo-Ottomanism.”

When the referendum imposed Brexit as a policy to follow by the UK, at the end of June 2016, obviously the British elite was prepared for this scenario (maybe this is why the electoral consultation on leaving the EU – scheduled for 2017 – was pushed forward) and certain immediate consequences had unmistakably been considered, along with the manner of negotiating this divorce from Europe. Undoubtedly, the economic consequences of Brexit, of the withdrawal of European institutions from London, and of potential backsliding concerning the UK’s political unity – the Scotland independence dossier, the attitude of Northern Ireland –, as well as other things, had been considered and will have been foreseen along with the most suitable measures to control them. Just as true must be the assumption that the possible interventions of unforeseen events were also assessed, managing them on the go being staked on to attain the sought-after goals. Because we must assume that the British political elite, by putting up for a national vote the exit from the EU, weighed what it would do in the case of one result or the other, and prepared intensely for each of the two possibilities. After all, it was a national grand strategy, on whose coordinates the UK must now evolve for decades, and the management of this road is a political issue of the highest importance in order to avoid disaster in the absence of efficient management.

As known, the first phase of UK-EU negotiations on the UK’s exit from the European organisation ended almost two weeks ago, and the agreement reached includes the paradigm in which phase two will take place, meant to establish the island-state’s status in relation to the EU-27. Two issues prevail in this paradigm, namely whether the UK will be part of the single European market (like Switzerland or Norway, or in a different arrangement), and the rapport toward the EU’s customs union. Both developments are basically the essence of Brexit, the post-referendum UK intending to be a fully sovereign state not subjected to the directives of Brussels.

But, in this paradigm, the border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent state member of the EU, is of crucial importance. Basically, Northern Ireland does not want to give up the open border with the Republic of Ireland, and in this situation the UK will be forced either to be part of the single market and the customs agreement of the EU, or to endanger the future of its unity. As a ‘Financial Times’ analyst wrote two days ago: “Any student of the history of Britain and Ireland will find it stunning that the government of the Republic of Ireland (with the EU27 at his back) is now, in effect, shaping the future trade policy of the UK. What a change after so many centuries: a reversal of power that many will find refreshing. A turn up for all the books that record the troublesome relationships in this wet and windy group of islands off the Eurasian land mass’s west coast.”

The historical reference made is to the tumultuous history of the relationship between Ireland and the UK, the Republic of Ireland breaking off from the Kingdom after the First World War, and an end being put to the Northern Ireland unionist movement (waves of bloody clashes in the final decades of the 20th Century) in 1998, through an agreement long-negotiated with the support of the EU, the so-called ‘Good Friday Agreement.’

A wrong decision on the part of London on this issue would cause embarrassment to the country’s political stability; moreover, it would once again outline the conflictual framework at the western extremity of the continent, undeniably a major concern for the EU. The same aforementioned analysis noted – and justly so, we consider, even though many will find it to be an excessive historical comparison – that on the issue of human rights: “the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (also known as the Belfast Agreement) is crucial. This document is now a core constitutional text of the UK, and of Ireland, and is of more everyday importance than hallowed instruments such as, say, Magna Carta of 1215 or the 1689 Bill of Rights.”

The comments to the analysis I cited were numerous and outlined the situation, from which there is almost no exit, in which the Brexit camp finds itself in the UK. Most comments emphasised the excellent quality of the analysis, not few pointed out that history has changed and Ireland, backed by “the 27,” can play an unprecedented historical role in deciding the future of the UK, while others cautioned against both abandoning the Good Friday agreement and a hasty action of the Irish unionism type.

Of course, there were also comments that identified solutions to the new paradigm in which the UK is now moving on the road out of the EU. I will cite one of these comments, which I find it answers the things pointed out at the start of this editorial, namely the unpredictability of the historical evolution and the responsibility of the political elite that promotes a certain grand strategy: “Ireland and our EU partners have been quietly impressive throughout this saga and I hope, however business-like their intent is, the effect will be to keep the UK within the EU fold where its successful future resides. It is striking how often it occurs that those who set out aggressively to assert their wishes to the exclusion of those of others, often find that the end result is the opposite of what they sought. It will be fitting if the demise of Brexit brings the end of Europhobia as a credible threat to the Country.”

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