Arthur I. Cyr: Britain and Europe - Will Brexit never end?
“Fog in channel, Continent cut off,” is a British quip about an old newspaper headline regarding English Channel weather, quoted in this column for good reason. Current developments regarding the European Union (EU) underscore the enduring reality that Britain is “in” but not “of” Europe.
The just concluded elections for the European Parliament have reconfirmed strong skepticism among the British people regarding any extensive, formal institutional involvement in Europe. The new Brexit Party has received the largest vote total, winning 29 of 73 allocated seats in the legislature. “Brexit” is the shorthand term for Britain’s departure from the EU.
The Brexit Party finished first with 31.5 percent of the vote, but the Liberal Democrats - strongly committed to Europe - finished second with 20.5 percent. Add the pro-Europe Green Party’s 12.1 percent and total pro-EU support equals the Brexiters. The Conservative and Labour parties internally disagree on Europe.
Nigel Farage created the Brexit Party in January 2019. In British politics, things do not usually happen that way. After all, in this nation tradition rules.
Previously, Farage was the leader of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independent Party. Many view this party as neofascist. Certainly, the party’s anti-immigrant stance has ugly dimensions.
Farage is colorful, collecting accusations of corruption as well as extremism. In 2016, with much fanfare, he and staff members visited the Republican National Convention in Ohio. He endorsed Donald Trump for the White House.
U.S. federal agents arrested George Cottrell, chief of staff for Farage and head of UKIP fundraising, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on 21 counts of money laundering, wire fraud, blackmail and extortion. After a plea deal, a judge released him from federal prison in March 2017.
While the three-day EU elections were taking place, Prime Minister Theresa May tearfully resigned. Given the extraordinary ineptness and weakness of her brief tenure in office, formal departure is only a footnote.
On repeated occasions, her government failed dismally to persuade the nation’s Parliament to accept agreements negotiated for withdrawal from the EU, or find alternative departure routes. Her own Conservative Party has effectively shattered over the issue, with massive defections both from “remainers” who want to continue in the EU and from hardline Brexiters.
Meanwhile, the EU has shown notable restraint and patience in the face of the seemingly endless British drama. Last November, at a summit meeting in Brussels, EU representatives formally accepted Brexit. EU President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed diplomatic “sadness” at the prospect.
Additionally, in December the European Court of Justice ruled Britain had the option of remaining in the EU without conditions. That legal bedrock is important especially as the British continue to wrestle with themselves.
In recent decades the Conservative Party, which led Britain into the European community, has moved position. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famously a Eurosceptic. The 1997 general election brought into Parliament a younger generation of Conservative politicians who reflected her views, including Theresa May.
Britain stayed aloof from the original European Economic Community, founded in the 1950s. Nonetheless, since World War II the nation’s trade and investment have become heavily concentrated in Europe.
At the same time, however, Britain remains a stalwart founding member of the NATO Alliance. Britain was instrumental in brokering vital ties with North America during World War II and the challenging post-war years.
Brexiters garner headlines, but the EU election results are ambiguous, reflecting these different currents. This context is essential to realistic, thorough political analysis.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.