In another splendid fit of absentmindedness, so typical for its history, Britain now left the European Union as a result of the referendum on 23 June 2016. The supporters of brexit rejoice, while the remainers despair. Those who tipped the balancenumber fewer than two per cent of the voters, so in reality neither the option of staying in nor of leaving the EU received a full-hearted and unequivocal mandate. Now, couple of days after, the triumphant brexiters backtrack on their promises of scores of economic and financial benefits that, according to them, were immediately to follow after the exit. In a typically British manner of muddling through, they even caution the public that the freedom of movement of people between Britain and the EU will continue for some indefinite period, while on the other hand the brexiters want Britain to retain full access to the single market. In a way they wish to straddle the fence by simultaneously being in and out. Ironically, it might mean that Britain, will join the ranks of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA). It is an extension of the single market, but without the right to deciding about its principles for EEA members. They just need to follow the rules as legislated and prescribed by the EU members.
Leaving the ultimate irony of such a situation aside, there remains the even more burning question of the brexit’s toxic fallout for the constituent elements of devolved Britain. England with Wales voted for leaving, while Scotland and Northern Ireland resoundingly voted to stay in the EU. Edinburgh has already voiced the possibility of another Scottish independence referendum, while Belfast is urging the inhabitants of Northern Ireland to acquire Irish citizenship and passports. A breakup of the UK, predicted in 1977 by the Scottish student of nationalism, Tom Nairn, looms high on the horizon. He based his argument on the breakup of Austria-Hungary. So the common knowledge is that in the wake of such a momentous event instability and tensions necessarily follow, in no time yielding decades of uncertainty, economic volatility, political marginalization of the successor states, conflict, strife and even war. All the ills that blighted the dark twentieth century, and which the EU has successfully prevented for 60 years now.
No one wants a spate of post-Yugoslav-like wars and ethnic cleansing in the British Isles, a ‘balkanization’ of Britain. Unfortunately, the UK seems to be firm set on this course, while the observers are resigned to the possibility of such an unsavoury outcome, because the voters had their say. The rife belief is that nothing can be done but wait for the doomsday to unfold. I disagree. It is the time to think out of the box. The most long-lasting and largest European polity that thanks to imaginative muddling through successfully survived time and again much worse challenges during its one millennium of existence was the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Why not to emulate the spirit of this polity’s flexible resilience? (Obviously, copying its institutions or actual political solutions is out of question, because the socio-political and economic world in which the HRE throve belongs firmly to the premodern period.)
Absolute sovereignty (as thought up in the sixteenth century by the French jurist, Jean Bodin) is an impossibility, especially in today’s globalized world. But in line with this ideal modern Europe’s nation-states loath the very idea of overlapping jurisdictions, sharing control of a territory. Transcending this irrational dislike of a solution that in some cases might work to the advantage of countries and its population is essential for thinking imaginatively about the post-brexit EU and Britain. Should Britain stay within the EEA after leaving the EU, Scotland could choose to remain in the EU without having to leave the UK. How? The Scottish legal system, NHS, schools, administration, police, taxation and many other prerogatives are devolved now in the gift of the Holyrood. What remains common for all the UK’s constituents is the monarch, the pound sterling and defence, alongside some shared elements of foreign policy and the budget. Hence, after invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, during the transition period (of up to two years) when England and Wales would unravel their ties with the EU and (possibly) become a member of the EEA, Scotland could choose otherwise. Namely, the Scots could continue observing the EU legislation and other obligations entailed by EU membership. As a result, while remaining within the UK, Scotland would succeed Britain as a member state of the EU.
Such a muddling-through-style solution would ensure respect for the differing democratic choices of the English and Welsh on the one hand, and also of the Scots and Northern Irish, on the other, by preserving Britain and keeping it simultaneously in and out of the EU. Obviously, such an imaginative approach to thinking about statehood, sovereignty and the EU, would be only possible with Brussels’ and the Whitehall’s consent. But I believe that it is more preferable to an Armageddon of national egoisms steeped in the idolatry of absolute sovereignty. This was the way of the dark twentieth century, complete with the two worlds, totalitarianism, expulsions of tens of millions and genocides of millions. Last but not least, it ought to be clearly borne in mind that the EU is not mainly not economy, but above all about lasting and prosperous peace.
June 25, 2016