Brexit has become a classic example of how public discourse is designed to obscure meaning. As May’s “triumph” at reaching the “end of the beginning” begins to look somewhat premature, metaphors of divorce have become stretched to breaking point. Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, clearly auditioning for the role of marriage guidance counsellor, sets the ball rolling: “Breaking up is hard, but building a new relationship is harder.”
Gideon Rachman, in an article optimistically entitled “Brexit can be a civilised divorce” (Financial Times, 12 December), adds a sado-masochistic note to the argument: “But in truly nasty divorces both parties are willing to undergo a degree of self-harm merely for the pleasure of damaging their ex-partner even more severely.”
And this written after the preliminary agreement between the warring parties to begin formal negotiations.
It’s amazing how the linguistic juggling brought this about. Diplomats burn the midnight oil to find alternative “forms of words” that will be acceptable to all parties. “Convergence” is out, “Alignment” is in, and everyone is happy. The truth is that any form of words is devoid of real meaning and is nothing more than a political device to create the impression of progress. Hardly was the ink dry on the agreement when David Davies, Britain’s lead negotiator and a man for whom the word “hapless” might have been invented, opined that it had no legal status, opening the door for another bout of cross-channel recrimination.
It is true that the Tories are in a mess, but they make a show of papering over the cracks. In the space of three days Theresa May went from being an incompetent loser in the eyes of her party to being the reincarnation of Boudicca, even enjoying the lavish praise of Michael Gove. Then came the loss of the vote on giving Parliament a “meaningful” vote.
Nor should we imagine that the leaders of the EU offer a palatable alternative. Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt, Jean-Claude Junker and Tusk is hardly a roll call of progressive politicians. They are all champions of neoliberalism and friends of the global corporations. Indeed, Tusk has opened up a rift in the European side between Eastern and Western states by arguing that the EU should abandon its quota system for migrants.
Simultaneously, the EU is accused of collaborating with Libyan coastguards and militias to ensure that refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean are intercepted and returned to North African detention camps. One effect of this split is to push German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron further in the direction of their own far-right racist critics on immigration.
All of these sordid developments are dressed up in diplomatic language so that the EU can present itself as some sort of benevolent society. The reality is that its tough negotiating stance with Britain is designed as a deterrent to any other of its members seeking to break away from the European project.
Interestingly the lack of confidence of the Europhiles is reflected by one of its proselytisers, Timothy Garten Ash (FT, 13 December) who urges caution and “conservatism” on European leaders rather the pursuit of federalist “Grand Designs”.
Finally, a brief word about the Irish border, a subject we will return to in more detail later in the year.
James Connolly, the great Irish Marxist, was more prescient than he himself probably realised when he famously argued that the partition of Ireland would lead to a “carnival of reaction north and south of the border”. He must have had the leadership of the DUP in mind!
They find themselves in a contradictory position, wanting no dilution of their political allegiance to the UK (unless of course these politics espouse abortion rights and LGBT+ equality policies), but being economically tied to a “soft” border with the Irish Republic. When Britain leaves the EU this will be the only land border between the two.
No amount of linguistic gymnastics will be able to solve this conundrum. To end on a metaphor, both sides will be up shit creek without a paddle.
The only credible response for the left to all these contradictions and linguistic obfuscations is to step up our campaign in support of migrants and refugees and free movement of labour, and continue to expose the false promise of a neoliberal single market. Our Europe needs to focus on the common opposition to austerity and racism across the continent.