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Brexit: The price of arrogance

Harold James in Princeton, New Jersey, USA | Published: March 05, 2019 21:24:43 | Updated: March 23, 2019 12:51:55


-Reuters file photo

European Council President Donald Tusk recently sparked controversy by saying there is a "special place in hell" for those who advocated Brexit "without a plan." To angry Brexiteers, the statement epitomises the unfeeling, moralistic attitude of the European Union (EU) technocracy in Brussels. British Prime Minister Theresa May duly issued a statement rebuking Tusk for his remark.

But May's response scarcely matters. She has already extended her deadline for holding a "meaningful vote" on an EU-exit deal, effectively confirming that she will remain bereft of a plan until the final moments. At this rate, the delays and extensions of Brexit deadlines might well continue indefinitely.

Tusk's great offence was to offer a banal and universal truth. Whether you are in London, Washington DC, or anywhere else, it is never advisable to enter into a negotiation without clear objectives and a sense of how the other side will respond. Hence, throughout history, statesmen such as Otto von Bismarck have regarded diplomacy as a chess game. As Bismarck well knew, it is not enough just to move pieces around; one must also anticipate what will come next.

As for the theological language in Tusk's indictment, one could argue that it is perfectly appropriate for politicians in a largely secularised Europe to speak of hell. After all, even many Christian clergy have moved beyond belief in an afterlife of perpetual damnation. And the Anglican Church abandoned the idea of purgatory back in the sixteenth century, with the Reformation.

In Christopher Marlowe's classic play Doctor Faustus (1592), the title character asks Mephistopheles what a demon is doing in his study instead of in hell. "Why, this is hell," replies Mephistopheles, "nor am I out of it." Equally all-encompassing was the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre's own conception: "Hell is other people."

What hell implies in a modern political context is open to debate, at least until we have a twenty-first-century Dante to offer a comprehensive eschatology and a new map to the Inferno. In view of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright' defence of Hillary Clinton's flawed 2016 presidential bid, for example, hell is the final destination for "women who don't help each other." Presumably, Albright did not mean that the 42 per cent of women voters who backed Trump have a fiery future in store for them.

Meanwhile, some Italian journalists have alleged, erroneously, that even Pope Francis has dispensed with the notion of hell. In reality, he has put hell at the centre of his vision of humanity. Francis reminds us that hell originally derived from a rebellious angel's arrogance, or superbia. A vice deeply embedded in the human psyche, arrogance is the act of telling God, "You take care of yourself because I'll take care of myself," Francis explained in 2015. Accordingly, "They don't send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there."

Brexit represents precisely this course. If hell is thinking that you do not need others, and that you need only look out for yourself, then the Brexiteers are already there. Those who believe only in themselves see no need to negotiate, because they assume the other side will simply bend to their will.

But in international relations, the assumption that one can regulate everything by oneself creates a hell that others have to live in, too. Hell, in this sense, is what happens when people succumb to the lure of self-determination and "sovereignty," creating a self-perpetuating cycle of strained relationships and mutually destructive unilateralism. This version of hell tends to last quite a long time indeed, because each side has its own selective memory and wants to punish the other.

While the assertion of sovereignty seems to conjure endless new possibilities, as it clearly has for the Brexiteers, it actually constrains one's choices. Those who renounce treaties, for example, invite others to do the same, whereupon it becomes all the more difficult to forge any kind of agreement at all. And those who have convinced themselves that they can choose freely among endless unrealised opportunities tend to live in constant regret of what might have been. This is the trap laid by hubris.

Thus, like Tantalus forever grasping at the fruit that is just beyond his reach, the United Kingdom wants to pursue trade deals that its membership in the EU otherwise precludes. Left unsaid is what that would mean in practice. The UK could aim to maximise prosperity by pushing deregulation as far as possible. Yet to trade profitably with other countries or the EU, it would still have to meet their regulatory standards regarding safety, quality, and so forth. Moreover, outside the EU's regulatory framework, Britain's newfound freedom would also imply new responsibilities to introduce regulations protecting UK residents.

The real question, then, is whether escape is even possible. If May wanted to be bold, she could issue the following statement: "Brexit is a terrible mistake. The decision was reached after a campaign of lies and malign foreign influence, and it is obvious that its costs will far exceed its benefits. As such, my government has decided not to pursue it any further. Instead, we will commit to working with the EU to address British concerns and prepare for an unpredictable future."

Such a statement is of course impossible, because May has already paid the ferryman through her previous choices. What awaits her and the UK is more punishment. First, the dismal reality on the ground will be exposed, and it will stand in shocking contrast to what might have been. Then, someone will have to be held responsible. But assigning blame is a punishment in itself. In Dante's telling, the adulteress Francesca da Rimini spends the rest of eternity incessantly pinning the blame for her actions on everyone and everything but herself.

Brexit augurs a similar national fate. The debates in Westminster and Whitehall show no sign of ever ending, and it is becoming increasingly obvious why: Brexit is eternal damnation.

Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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