“Brexit means Brexit” – the mantra of the previous British prime minister Theresa Could – deserves a spot in philosophy textbooks as essentially the most meaningless sentence ever to comprise the phrase “means”. However let’s not idiot ourselves that after we lastly uncover if there may be to be a minimal UK-EU commerce deal, or no deal, we are going to then know what Brexit means. It will likely be 5 years a minimum of, and possibly 10, earlier than we see a transparent define of the brand new relationship between the offshore islands and the continent. By then the EU could also be a really totally different group, and the UK might not exist.
In an additional referendum that’s more likely to occur within the subsequent few years, the Scots will determine whether or not they need to go away the 300-year-old union with England and rejoin the European one. In the event that they vote for independence, regardless of the attendant financial difficulties, then the UK will successfully stop to be. Any British politician who needs the Scots to stay with the English should quickly current a unique, federal mannequin of the British union as the choice to independence. So the selection would be the finish of the UK or a brand new Federal Kingdom of Britain. (Federal United Kingdom produces an unlucky acronym.)
The trail from the 2016 referendum vote to this tough Brexit was strewn with damaged guarantees: from the article Boris Johnson wrote within the Each day Telegraph 4 days later, blithely asserting that “there’ll proceed to be free commerce, and entry to the one market” to then then commerce secretary, Liam Fox, saying the free commerce settlement with the European Union “needs to be one of many best in human historical past”. In a triumph of cognitive dissonance, Brexiteers managed to carry two incompatible ideas concurrently: that “Europe” is a hideous Franco-German plot to submerge England in a Napoleonic empire; but in addition that those self same new Napoleons would (on directions from the German automobile trade) be certain to present the UK privileged, unfettered entry to the one market, so the British may have their cake and eat it.
The query now’s whether or not there shall be a dynamic of convergence or divergence between Britain and the EU. Each believable different to the present populist British authorities would like a softer Brexit. That features a extra pragmatic and competent Conservative authorities underneath a brand new chief similar to Rishi Sunak, the present chancellor. It might be much more true of a Labour – or Labour-led coalition – authorities underneath Keir Starmer. This, in addition to the logic of financial self-interest, means that Britain will, over time, progressively edge again nearer to the EU, sector by sector, subject by subject.
However, the tougher the Brexit, the extra Britain should search another enterprise mannequin. Because the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine demonstrates, even England and Wales on their very own nonetheless have important strengths: monetary companies, nice universities, biotech, DeepMind, different vitality, artistic industries. The financial system shall be smaller than it could have been with out Brexit, however might in time develop a brand new, aggressive profile. This factors to divergence. And the unhealthy blood and mutual recrimination round a no-deal Brexit, if it involves that, could be more likely to infect and hamper the event of cooperation in different areas, similar to international and safety coverage, for a while to come back.
But the way forward for Brexit will rely as a lot on developments on the continental facet of the Channel. Individuals in Germany, France or Italy now speak little or no about Brexit – not solely as a result of they’re fed up with the topic, but in addition as a result of the EU faces two different huge crises, which will definitely be mentioned on the European summit this week. The EU should urgently put via its spectacular new €1.8tn (£1.6tn) finances and restoration fund, as with out it, the post-Covid restoration shall be tougher and north-south tensions contained in the eurozone might once more develop into acute. However to do that, it has to beat threatened vetoes from Hungary and Poland, that are holding the remainder of the EU to ransom in order to additional weaken the proposed rule-of-law conditionality on these funds.
Some have argued that Brexit may very well assist the EU as a result of, liberated from the Anglo-Saxon awkward buyer, the opposite member states can easily transfer forward to additional integration. That is an phantasm. It took a marathon five-day summit this summer season to agree the finances and restoration fund, over fierce resistance from the “frugal 4” (Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands), with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, taking part in Thatcher.
What the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, are actually doing to their EU companions makes Thatcher seem like a delicate Europhile. The previous British prime minister might have cried “I need my a reimbursement”, however a minimum of Britain was a serious web contributor to the European finances. After she obtained her rebate, she forcefully superior a central mission of European integration – the one market whose “stage taking part in area” (a really British metaphor) the EU is now insisting the UK should settle for.
Hungary and Poland, against this, stand to be huge web beneficiaries from the finances and restoration fund, which collectively may contribute greater than 6% of Hungary’s GDP. But they’re refusing to simply accept some pretty minimal rule-of-law circumstances, with out which the EU will progressively stop to be a group of democracies and a shared authorized order.
In impact, what the Hungarian and Polish leaders are saying to German and Dutch taxpayers is: we gained’t allow you to make these badly wanted transfers to southern eurozone nations like Italy and Spain, each of them hard-hit by Covid, except you permit us to go on utilizing massive quantities of your cash with none important constraints. In Hungary, which means EU funds being distributed to prop up Orbán’s more and more undemocratic regime, to not point out it benefiting his household and buddies.
If this shameless blackmail succeeds, the populist, xenophobic, nationalist ruling events in Hungary and Poland will have the ability to go on doing just about what they please, being paid for it generously and, for good measure, biting the German and Dutch fingers that feed them.
Quick ahead to Hungexit or Polexit? Why would they be so silly? Johnson can speak of getting his cake and consuming it; Orbán really does it.
No, the rapid risk to the EU will not be that Hungary and Poland will comply with Britain out of the door, however that they may stay full members of the membership whereas persevering with to violate its most necessary guidelines. It’s onerous to say which is now the better hazard to the way forward for the EU: a democratic Britain that has left, or an undemocratic Hungary that is still.
• Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political author and Guardian columnist