Brexit, Britain, and Mainland Europe

I have noticed on Twitter a certain propensity among the metropolitan elite, particularly journalists, to claim that Britain is now the laughing stock of Europe and that everyone on the Continent thinks Brexiteers to be delusional. I imagine that in their world this is actually true: most of them will speak French, German, or Spanish and will spend much of their time in Europe for work or visiting families and friends. Only you can be sure they’ll be swanning around the nicer areas of Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Geneva with wealthy, middle-class journalists and the sort of “businessmen” whose nose is never more than half-an-inch from a politician’s arse. They sure as hell won’t be hanging around a Portuguese dock or drinking vodka in a Latvian bar with a bunch of ethnic Russians.

From what I can tell, Europeans don’t seem particularly interested in Brexit. I think everyone was rather surprised initially, but now they’re so resigned to Britain leaving that it barely gets mentioned. I work in a very international company with major operations in the UK, and talk of Brexit is conspicuous by its absence. When the subject comes up, usually over lunch with colleagues who ask me for my opinions on the matter, there is some disappointment but in general they don’t see it as a big deal. For a lot of mainland Europeans, Britain was never really part of the club anyway. We were always complaining, we seemed to prefer the company of Americans, and a few are not even sure why we joined in the first place. It’s a bit like Australia being in the Eurovision Song Contest, nobody is quite sure what they’re doing there. The attitude of everyone seems to be slight confusion as to why Britain voted to leave but now they have, can we just get on with it ASAP and if we can still work, travel, and trade that would be grand.

Unlike perhaps our lofty metropolitan elites, the mainland Europeans appreciate that Britain is quite different. The mainland Europeans, particularly the French and Dutch, still have bad memories from the war and are willing to do anything to avoid a repeat. They truly believe the EU is responsible for keeping the peace, whereas in the UK we think that was down to Nato. There are reasons for this.

Britain had the enormous advantage of not being occupied during WWII, which had a major effect on how we viewed the war afterwards. We lost a lot of men and saw our cities bombed, but we never had to deal with the messy compromise of an occupation. The excellent book Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII goes into some detail on this subject, and explains the effects of prolonged occupation on a population. At some point people cooperate, because they have to: the book cites an example of a French baker accused after the war of selling bread to the Nazis. He asks what choice he had, and points out that he was also providing bread to the French population who would otherwise have starved. It discusses the issue of young women who engaged in relationships with the occupying soldiers, and met the full fury of their countrymen when the war was over. One girl protested that as far as she could make out the Nazis were the local government and had been for some time, and plenty of other people were interacting with them. How is having a relationship with a soldier of the de facto regime a crime? She had a point.

Few people in the occupied countries wanted to dwell on matters of collaboration and cooperation after the war: there was a period of retribution, much of it vicious and used as a pretext for power-grabs and the settling of old scores, but the various governments quickly found themselves establishing a semi-believable narrative that made them look good and running with it. To be fair, they had little choice: the late 1940s was not the time for hand-wringing, there were nations to rebuild and Soviets to keep out. This is why the French, even to this day, skip over the small matter of the Vichy regime when celebrating Charles de Gaulle and the heroic Resistance. It’s why the Dutch never point out that quite a few of them welcomed the Nazi occupation initially, seeing them as Germanic cousins. Britain avoided all of this, and their particular tale of heroic resistance and defiance against all the odds was much easier to weave.

Britain also didn’t get wrecked like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, parts of France, and other countries on the mainland. Our cities took a pounding, particularly London and Coventry, but there was not the sort of devastation seen in those cities which first saw aerial bombardment and then ground fighting as they were liberated. We also didn’t have the hunger: there was a famine in the Netherlands in 1944-5 which claimed the lives of 22,000 people. There were major food shortages in Austria and Germany after the war, and it was years before food supplies were back up and running across the continent again. Britain had rationing, but nobody starved.

The mainland European view of the war is very different from the British: our culture makes light of the war – Dad’s Army, and ‘Allo ‘Allo being two examples – because for us it was a jolly old ruck with the Bosch that we won. Our families, homes, and communities weren’t wrecked, for the large part. So when we talk about keeping the peace in Europe, we’re not haunted by the same memories as mainland Europeans. We saw the priority as keeping the Russians from occupying all of us, hence Nato. If Europe got demolished in the meantime, then meh. Whereas for the Europeans, particularly the Dutch and French, they are equally if not more concerned about keeping the peace among themselves because that is what caused so much destruction last time. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they see the EU as a greater guarantor of peace than Nato.

The way people think, vote, and behave differs wildly between nations, regions, groups, and individuals and there are usually very deep cultural and historical reasons for these differences. It is not a lack of intelligence, information, and values which drive the French to maintain a political and economic system which is unfathomable to an Anglo-Saxon: they simply have a different history and culture than us. This is why I find the self-righteous posturing of London’s elites over Brexit so irritating. They may share pro-EU views with their counterparts in mainland Europe, but they have no idea why. If they did, they’d understand why so many people don’t share their views. They hope that by writing puff-pieces about pro-EU attitudes on the mainland while sneering at their own people they will ingratiate themselves with the former and show themselves to be superior than the latter.

Neither will happen for the same reason I will always be considered a Brit and never a Frenchman: culture and history matter and shapes who you are, even if you detest them and wish you were someone else.


Taking the lead, German style

From the BBC:

Angela Merkel has said she sees no obstacles in the way of beginning Brexit talks as scheduled after Theresa May failed to win a majority in Thursday’s UK election.

The German chancellor said she believed Britain would stick to the timetable, adding the European Union was “ready”.

I don’t know if it was always like this, but the EU seems to have given up all pretence that it isn’t the Germans running things. A few weeks ago we were told there was an EU negotiating team and that Britain would have to deal with it, rather than individual countries. We were told the EU member states had such faith in their team that they took fifteen minutes to agree on the approach they’ll take when negotiating.

Yet here is Merkel apparently speaking on behalf of the EU. Would the Czech prime minister get away with that? And note that she made these remarks pretty much immediately the election result was known, so she obviously didn’t run any of this by the EU negotiating team or the member states. She’s just assumed that Germany can speak on behalf of the entire EU and isn’t even bothering to hide it any more.

A half-decent negotiator on the British side could use this to drive a coach and horses through the EU strategy. The trouble with that is we have almost no chance of getting one. Either way, mainland Europeans seem quite content with Germany assuming the leadership. Let’s hope they don’t change their mind on that at some point.


The Nation Speaks

Well, Theresa May has played a blinder, hasn’t she?

Unlike some, I didn’t think her calling the general election was a bad idea. I thought she needed a stronger mandate from the people to negotiate Brexit otherwise she would be undermined by Remainers pointing out that she never won a general election. However, a lot of people got the impression that is was more of a ploy to kick Labour while they were down and reset the clock for a five year term starting this summer rather than in 2015. Whatever her reasons for calling it, she must be seriously regretting it now.

A lot of people are blaming the young for voting for Corbyn having not understood his history or policies. Basically, they’re saying he has offered them free stuff and they have fallen for it, being too young to remember the effect such policies had on the country a couple of generations ago. There may be some truth in this, but I’m not happy with it as an overall explanation. I didn’t like disparaging all Trump voters as being thick, backward racists and I don’t think we should dismiss Corbyn’s supporters in the same way. We’d be better off trying to find out exactly why people might have voted for him rather than May.

I saw Andrew McNeill’s interview with Jeremy Corbyn and I thought he came across very well. Not in the sense that I believed a word he was saying or wasn’t openly expressing a political stance that I found appalling, but Blair did much the same and look how everyone loved him before he went off starting wars. No, he just came across well, somebody who seemed reasonable. He didn’t look like someone who nobody could possibly vote for, at any rate.

The young folk won’t remember the IRA’s bombing campaign and were probably utterly confused when Islamic terrorists attacked Manchester and London and the right thought the best political response was to show Corbyn with Irishmen in balaclavas in the 1980s. If anybody under the age of 25 had the slightest idea what the connection was I’d be surprised. What they would have understood is Theresa May looking and sounding like a wrinkly, annoying Head Girl telling them she’s going to restrict the internet. It might not have occurred to May, but the young folk quite like their internet and won’t like plans to restrict it in any way. “Clamping down on online spaces” sounds a lot like a nagging parent banning their kid from going on YouTube, and coming from a 60 year old vicar’s daughter the effect would only be magnified.

So it is not difficult to see why people, particularly the young, were turned off May and preferred Corbyn. There may be other reasons too, wholly economic. Before we pompously dismiss the young for voting for free stuff, let’s look at who owns the wealth in Britain. No, not the Jews and not “the corporations”. It’s those who own property. One thing every government since 1997 has had in common is that they saw ever-increasing house prices as a central policy in order to trick the middle classes into believing they are wealthy. Having ensured that property was the only meaningful investment in Britain, successive governments dared not do anything that could make house prices fall – such as raising interests, or relaxing planning laws. In fact, it is hard to think of any government policy that has been more firmly entrenched than ensuring house prices don’t fall: I think Britain would go to war before that happens.

This policy, coupled with immigration which has put ever-more pressure on property prices particularly in London, has benefited people approximately over 40 to the detriment of anyone younger. If you were of an age around about 2000 when you were just buying your first house, suddenly you saw your “investment” increase threefold and you could strut around the office boasting of your business acumen as if you were Warren Fucking Buffet. Anyone younger found the price of a crumbling shithole to be “worth” eight times their salary and the deposit equivalent to what their parents paid for their 4-bed detached house in a leafy suburb in 1986.

I wondered when the younger folk were going to notice that they have been utterly stitched up by the generations above them, and now it appears they have. People say the country is divided between Leavers and Remainers, but from what I can see there is also a divide between the propertied classes and the younger generations who have had the ladder kicked from under them. All the Labour supporters I saw slagging of Corbyn were from the property-owning classes, who would have fully approved of the New Labour economic policies which saw the value of their houses magically skyrocket. Most of the Tories, whether they liked May or not, own their own homes.

To anyone sitting in a £600k house they paid £200k for and a mortgage with a 1.2% interest rate, things like the EU and Trident probably seem very important. To somebody just graduated on a salary of £25k per year and looking at paying £650 a month in a shared house worth £600k owned by a very average middle manager who happened to be born twenty years earlier, these issues won’t be so important. This situation will only have been exacerbated by the dismissive attitudes towards Millenials, who are portrayed by the media and middle classes as spoiled brats who don’t know the meaning of hard work.

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it was the current crop of middle classes who jumped out of aeroplanes over Normandy and ran up her beaches. A 40 year old now would have been born in 1977 and hit adulthood as Tony Blair took office. If he or she was lucky enough to be gifted soaring equity in their property, it is hard to believe the current crop of teenagers is any more molly-coddled by the government than they.

I am saying this with the benefit of hindsight, but it appears the middle classes who wanted either a return to New Labour or a Tory government (assuming there is a difference) vastly underestimated how out of touch they are with the younger generation. Sure, Corbyn promised them a lot of free stuff but maybe they think they are entitled to something given the older generations have helped themselves to a large chunk of the country’s wealth using no efforts of their own, and have been rubbing it in everyone’s faces for years.

Whatever the reasons, May has taken a battering and needs to go. This has thrown Brexit into disarray as her primary reason for calling the election was to unify the country behind the negotiations. As I said earlier, I am ambivalent as to whether Britain leaves the EU or stays in it, but I think any negotiations need to be done from a position of strength and by a person who the whole country believes is up to the job. It is clear that very few people think this person is Theresa May, and we need to find a replacement ASAP. That will probably mean another general election this year, then.

Lucky Britain.


A New Class of Political Bore

One thing I have noticed in the past few days is the number of hardcore Remain advocates, mostly media figures based in London, who appear to be firmly on the side of the EU in their negotiations with Britain over Brexit. They seem to think, perhaps as those leading the EU negotiations do, that leaking details of meetings and making absurd threats and demands will force the British people to cave in and change their minds.

It is remarkable that these people believe these tactics will not be completely counterproductive, and turn more Brits against the EU. Yes, we know the Metropolitan elite didn’t vote for Brexit, but now we are here they are hoping the process of leaving gets scuppered by any means necessary, even if that increases the possibility of Britain getting the worst of all outcomes. They remind me of the so-called anti-war crowd who were hoping for a complete disaster in Iraq and the deaths of British troops just so they could say “I told you so”. For some people, any price is worth paying to avoid being wrong.

I keep reading people swallowing hole the line that May & Co. are blitheringly incompetent and Britain is headed for disaster. Perhaps they are right, but I’d prefer it if they offered more evidence than the hyperbolic ravings of a dyed-in-the-wool Eurocrat who has clearly taken the Leave vote as a personal insult. There are reasons to be concerned over the Brexit negotiations and there were valid reasons to vote Remain. Neither of these should mean the antics of Juncker and others are cheered by anyone in Britain, but they are.

These people never saw the Leave vote coming because they lived in a privileged bubble in which the benefits of EU membership were obvious and the drawbacks non-existent. Like the Hillary supporters who deluded themselves into thinking Trump would be impeached within the first month and somehow their candidate anointed, they have never stepped back, looked around them, and understood the country they are living in. In their arrogance they think they know best and have the numbers, but neither is true.

I suspect what we’re seeing here is the creation of a new class of political bores, identical to the ones who spent their entire lives blaming the world’s ills on Thatcher and taught their infant children to do the same, only instead of Maggie it will be Brexit which is the object of their ire. One thing is for sure, they’re not going to shut up, nor are they going to change the subject, long after Brexit is done and dusted and Britain is going its own way.

(This over at The Last Ditch is worth reading, too.)


Ireland’s Unenviable Position

One of the main points of discussion surrounding Brexit is what happens to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is the only place (with the possible exception of Gibraltar) where the UK will share a land border with the European Union, and people are worried that chaos will ensue if border controls and customs points are installed. The EU has even gone so far as to suggest the Republic of Ireland might annex Northern Ireland with the full support of Brussels, perhaps not realising that a lot of blood has been shed over this subject already.

Personally I think they’re missing the bigger picture here, or they’re pretending to. Even if there is no border between Eire and NI, there is no way to get from Ireland to the rest of the EU without going through Britain – unless by air or a lengthy boat trip: Cherbourg to Rosslare takes about 18 hours. I don’t know if things have changed since I was a kid, but the Pembroke Dock and Fishguard ferries did a brisk trade with with lorries going to and from Rosslare, and I believe Holyhead to Dublin was much the same. It would be interesting to see how much of Ireland’s trade in physical goods with the EU minus the UK passes through the British mainland; my guess it would quite a bit.

How this will work post-Brexit is anyone’s guess. These goods will either have to be shipped directly via sea or custom-cleared into Britain and then back out again at Dover. Perhaps an agreement could be made for sealed containers to pass through without clearing customs or being charged transit fees, but that would rather depend on the goodwill of the British government towards Ireland at that point, wouldn’t it? And this opens up all sorts of opportunities for smuggling and cross-border shenanigans.

The truth is, Ireland is in a really shitty position right now. For historical and nationalistic reasons they have to pretend their future lies with the EU if they have to choose one or the other, but for all practical purposes Ireland is dependent on having full access to the UK for its goods, services, and people – which they had long before the EU came along. At some point they’re going to have to admit to this and whisper in Juncker’s ear that they really, really don’t want to lose the right to live, work, and study in the UK that they had all along. Then we’ll see just how much the EU cares about them.


Who pays the price of Juncker’s hardline approach?

Further to yesterday’s post on the EU and Brexit, Damian Counsell, he of Pootergeek fame, made some good points on Twitter yesterday:

What Juncker will do with his “punish Britain” approach is impose considerable costs on businesses, citizens, and the national treasuries of EU member states. In other words, he is playing tough with other people’s money. Whereas it is tempting to say that the EU has always ridden roughshod over these concerns, precedent says this is unlikely to happen:

The EU is run by and for the national and business interests of France and Germany. The minute German industry starts to get hit with additional punitive costs imposed by swaggering EU politicians, Merkel’s phone is going to be ringing red-hot. The same goes for Macron. Like Damian, I am sure the EU negotiators will be made very aware of what the costs to European businesses will be every time they suggest taking a hardline approach in one area or another, even if this is not done publicly.

As I’ve said before, I think the EU negotiators have a far bigger headache than the British ones right now. The politicians and bureaucrats at the EU-level have always been about noise and bluster, and when pushed quickly retreat into petty obstructionism (see Greece, for example). For probably the first time in their lives they have been tasked with something which requires real negotiation and the outcome of which will seriously affect those who pay their salaries and maintain their positions, i.e. German and French business interests. It will be interesting to see if they are up to it.