Britain faces a long slog in Brexit negotiations

By Arthur I. Cyr

“Fog in channel, continent cut off,” is a very old British joke about an alleged newspaper headline regarding weather over the waterway separating them from Europe. Even a brief visit to the British Isles can confirm this sense of distance.

The 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union — known as Brexit for short — is important confirmation of this deep ambivalence. On Feb. 8, Britain’s House of Commons approved a bill authorizing Prime Minister Theresa May and her government to begin negotiating withdrawal. The House of Lords has the power to amend or delay but not overturn House of Commons decisions. The close but clear vote in the referendum last June to leave the EU was a startling surprise. As with the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the majority of opinion polls predicted the opposite outcome. Clearly there are strong currents of popular discontent in both countries that are not fully captured by conventional polling techniques. The European Union was the product of World War II, not trade and investment per se. Early in that conflict, influential and insightful leaders in Britain and the U.S., including people who had escaped Nazi domination of the European continent, concluded that new international organizations were essential to avert a third world war.

One result was the United Nations. Another was the European Union, which grew out of a limited European Coal and Steel Community. Those two industries were tangible, essential and already tied France and Germany together. Restraining Germany was central and essential. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an especially influential leader in international as well as European terms. She personifies a positive as well as powerful Germany, consistently committed to humanitarian goals. Whatever the outcome in Germany’s federal elections this fall, her record of strong effective leadership is undeniable. Geography has been an unavoidable factor defining the international outlooks of both Germany and the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales along with England. All but the first comprise Britain. The United Kingdom’s island status has facilitated wide ranging trade. Many analysts, including Henry Kissinger, have underscored that Germany’s vulnerability to invasion from both east and west historically encouraged emphasis on military means.