Issues More Than Cloud Resolution Of Brexit

May 17, 2019

Though not intentional, our trips to Ireland and the U.K. bookended the Brexit dilemma. We visited Ireland on June 23, 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and ironically were in London on March 29 when that exit was to occur. It didn’t, and so the debate continues, and the stakes grow. Americans ask why, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, can’t they get it done? To say that the British are themselves tired of the Brexit bickering is an understatement. They are both exhausted and embarrassed by a proposed divorce that drags out in plain view of so many. A coalition of the British Conservative Party led by Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland holds a majority in Parliament, but within those parties there is no consensus to pass the exit plan which May worked out with the European Union. The sticking points are many, but among those that are the most intractable are how to establish a “soft border” between the Republic of Ireland, an independent country that remains part of the European Union, and Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom. Currently with both countries in the European Union the porous border allows for the free flow of people and goods between the two countries. However, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union this will no longer be the case. Some fear that the animosity between the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland and Protestant Northern Ireland, mitigated by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, may reignite. Obviously, the U.K. and the European Union wish to avoid such a circumstance, but Brussels believes that if European Union and non-European Union countries enjoy a soft border then the other 28 European Union countries might establish similar arrangements. This would allow other countries into the European Union’s free-trade zone without requiring them to abide by the stipulations and regulations to which participating European Union countries must adhere. It is exactly these stipulations and regulations that caused many United Kingdom citizens to vote to leave the European Union. Many in the U.K. are incensed that they must operate under regulations “established in Brussels” while having little to say about their passage or enforcement. To many in the United Kingdom these regulations amount to taxation on the products they produce or taxation without representation — sound familiar? Some of these regulations have to do with the unique characteristics and cultures of countries in the European Union and have little to do with commerce in the United Kingdom. French agricultural production restrictions, various labor laws, sales restrictions and other European Union rules hamper U.K. entrepreneurs and to a certain extent people’s freedom. The country that fostered the rights of individuals in the Magna Carta in 1215, and whose intellectual leaders captured the spirit of free enterprise in the 18th century, has a long and proud tradition of governance by and for the people. To give that up to the whims of other European Union countries, many of whom share little desire for the relative laissez-faire approach to regulation in United Kingdom, is abhorrent to many there. And of course, there is the immigration issue. A condition of European Union membership is that citizens of any European Union country can immigrate to any other European Union country. This has been a bone of contention since an influx of Middle Eastern and African immigrants have flooded into Western Europe. United Kingdom residents are not xenophobic. In fact, a recent “Economist” poll shows the British feel “more comfortable” in social interactions with immigrants than do most in other European Union countries. But, lacking any border control worries citizens in a period of international terrorism. All these issues more than cloud the resolution of Brexit. From this side of the Atlantic it is easy to point fingers and ask why the U.K. can’t follow through on what the majority of citizens who voted to leave the European Union wanted. But the issues are not easy to resolve and as far as the politics go, agreement and compromise aren’t either. For Americans to suggest that the Brits should find political compromise and “get it done already” is to say, “do as we say, not as we do.” MICHAEL A. MACDOWELL is managing director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation and president emeritus of Misericordia University.