Tories Brexit Blues: A European crisis

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Theresa May is in trouble. Pic: EU2017EE/Flickr

The dominant narrative of the political establishment and its various media echo chambers is that the European Union has Britain over a barrel as the Brexit negotiations stumble towards the end of their first phase.

The reality is more complex. The Tory crisis is real enough, but it is to some extent mirrored by the situation of Europe as a whole, if not in its economic manifestations then certainly in its political ruptures.

Elsewhere in this issue Charlie Kimber looks at the rise of the far-right parties throughout Europe, not least in Germany, the powerhouse of the continent.

Not unrelated to this phenomenon is the collapse of the liberal consensus. Merkel, so often identified as the symbol and guarantor of European stability, is struggling to put together a coalition government and even if she succeeds in reviving a “grand coalition” with the social democrats the combined vote of the two traditionally dominant parties is only 53 percent.

This collapse of the centre throughout the EU gives the lie to the notion that Europe is a beacon of progressive policies as well as economic growth.

This does not mean, however, that there are not specific and serious problems in Britain and it certainly doesn’t mean that the Tories have dragged themselves out of the mire.

They remain fractiously divided over Brexit and the price of the divorce bill which they appear to have agreed to has made their divisions even more transparent. The disgraced former cabinet minister Priti Patel has said that Europe to should be told to “sod off” over the payment.

The rights of EU citizens also remain unresolved and their vital contribution to British society, not least the health service, has not yet been formally recognised in the talks. More ominously the question of the Irish border, the only land border between Britain and the rest of Europe appears to be intractable. It is not just the economic implications of attempting to establish a “hard” border between the South and the North that are causing palpitations in the ruling establishments on both side of the Irish Sea. The political consequences are even more precarious.

Local communities and businesses in the border areas have seen their lives immeasurably improved in the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement and it’s inconceivable that attempts to implement customs controls and trade restrictions will not be met with open hostility.

The idea of pushing the border out into the Irish Sea is equally unpalatable for Unionist politicians — many of whom support Brexit — because it would imply that Ireland was seen as a single entity and the existing division between North and South an irrelevant anachronism. Which of course it is!

Neither has Hammond lightened the gloom. Even establishment economists have described it as a “bits and pieces” budget that highlights more than anything the sluggish growth of the economy, a growth now adjusted down from 2 to 1.5 percent.

Nothing has been done to address the public sector pay crisis which has suffered to such an extent from Osborne’s 1 percent cap that workers are now estimated by the TUC to be earning £3,000 a year less in real terms than they were seven years ago. There has been no retreat from the austerity agenda imposed on the vast majority while the rich elite salt away their billions in tax havens.

This is indeed a crisis not just of British proportions, but one that engulfs the whole of Europe and one that requires Europe-wide resistance.