Britain plays with fire over Brexit
It holds a weak hand – without a deal, trade and relationships will be damaged
by: Martin Wolf
Later this month, Theresa May, British prime minister, will start the most significant negotiation the country has engaged in since it negotiated membership of the European Economic Community in the early 1970s. This time, the country will repudiate its membership of what is now the EU, by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. Whether one was in favour of leaving or of remaining, one has to hope Mrs May gets a good deal.
The UK’s fate will always be bound up with that of the continent. It will also always be a significant European power. But these common interests will not be enough to secure a good deal. These are going to be difficult negotiations. The chances of a calamitous outcome, with poisonous long-term results, are high. Some of the more fanatical Brexiters would appear to desire this. Mrs May must resist such pressure.
How should the UK government approach these negotiations? It must set the right objectives, appreciate its position and adopt an effective approach.
The overriding objective must be to achieve the best possible deal on trade. The reality, however, is that the UK has a weak hand: without a deal, it would have its trade disrupted and relationship with the continent in tatters. Its counterparts know this. The UK does far more of its trade with the rest of the EU than the rest of the EU does with the UK. It has more to lose.
Former prime minister Sir John Major has laid out the best approach: “The most successful results are obtained when talks are conducted with goodwill: it is much easier to reach agreement with a friend than a quarrelsome neighbour. But, behind the diplomatic civilities, the atmosphere is already sour.” Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, adds: “At a time of global uncertainty . . . Britain’s decision baffles its partners. They feel snubbed, hurt and (at least in some cases) insecure.” (See charts below.)
If the negotiations are to succeed, the government must focus its energies. This should not be over the terms of the divorce, particularly money or the rights of EU citizens to stay. The EU intends to ask for €60bn (£52bn). This is roughly 3 per cent of the UK’s annual gross domestic product. Over, say, a decade it would amount to 0.3 per cent of GDP annually. This is petty cash. The future of its relationship with the EU is far more important than that. Similarly, in return for high-quality access to the single market, via a comprehensive free-trade agreement and an “enhanced equivalence” regime for services, plus a smooth transition to such an arrangement, the UK should be willing to pay a continuing contribution to the EU. This would contradict the Brexiters’ claim that leaving the EU will release £350m a week for the National Health Service. But that was a fib.
Proponents of this approach might be condemned as “enemies of the people”. Since Robespierre, Lenin, Hitler and Mao all applied variants of this phrase to those they slaughtered, I deem this epithet an honour. In a liberal democracy, no temporary majority may arrogate to itself the label of “the people”. The 48 per cent who voted for Remain are also “the people”. In this particular case, there is no good reason to conclude that the form of hard Brexit that is now likely would have obtained the slender majority Leave managed to win in June 2016.
Some in the government and many Brexiters argue that if the UK does not get the deal from the EU it wants, it should become a low tax, free-trading state, similar, perhaps, to Hong Kong. But, as Sir John notes, “such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support”. It is not only contrary to everything stated by the Leave campaign, but also contrary to everything Mrs May has pronounced since taking office. This would be an anti-democratic outrage.Let us suppose that the government fails to obtain a good deal from its negotiations with the EU.
Let us suppose that this failure is not because it approached this negotiation in an arrogant and demanding spirit. In fact, it approached them in an emollient and reasonable one. What then? Former prime minister Tony Blair argues that “if our government were conducting a negotiation which genuinely sought to advance our country’s interests, that negotiation would include the possibility of Britain staying in a reformed Europe”.
I have no objection in principle to the idea that the application to leave could be reversed once the nature of Brexit became clearer. It is certainly no less patriotic to wish to remain than to leave. Moreover, the result of a referendum on a particular date cannot be sacrosanct for all time. It is possible that the electorate will change its mind. Those Brexiters who insist on parliamentary sovereignty can also not object in principle to a parliamentary vote on the terms of the deal that is actually reached, set against the option of remaining in the EU.
Yet, in practice, this option is highly implausible. This is partly because it would shatter the stability of the Conservative party at a time when there is no credible opposition. Yet what is even more important is the view of the rest of the EU. I find it impossible to imagine that after two years of hard negotiations, the UK would be allowed to get away with saying to its counterparties that the deal they have offered is so bad that it has decided to stay inside, almost as a form of punishment. This would violate all norms of decent behaviour. I suspect that any attempt to withdraw the Article 50 application in these circumstances would be rejected by the members, supported by the European Court of Justice. The latter would view such whimsical behaviour as incompatible with the survival of the EU itself.
The election of Marine Le Pen as president of France might make all this moot. But, as things now stand, the assumption must be that Britain will leave. The question is exactly how. On that, everything remains in play.
On the eve of the French presidential election, the future of France not only hangs in the balance but also that of Europe. Or, at least, a certain idea of Europe — namely, one based on the institutions and laws of the European Union. Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the extreme right-wing National Front party, has centered her campaign on the recentering of France as a sovereign nation. At a press conference last month devoted to her foreign policy, Le Pen announced to no one’s surprise: “It’s time we finished with the European Union.”
But does this mean Le Pen is finished with, well, other ideas for a unified Europe? The blueprints for one alternative Europe can be found in her party’s ideological basement. Were she to venture there, Le Pen would discover — or rediscover — the writings of thinkers associated with France’s so-called Nouvelle Droite, or “New Right.” While these thinkers never held — or, at least, held for very long — prominent positions within the National Front, they were there at the party’s beginnings and have left their imprint on its evolution. Scorning the universal values of the Enlightenment that underpin the EU, these thinkers instead propose a united Europe bound together by what, in their eyes, are the irrefutable and irresistible claims of race and ethnicity.
Among the many individuals who have circled around the dark sun of ethno-nationalism, few have followed a more bizarre orbit that Jean Thiriart. As a young self-described leftist in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Thiriart joined Les Amis du Grand Reich Allemand, a collaborationist organization that, as its name suggests, thrilled to the prospect of a unified Europe under Nazi control. Imprisoned after the war for collaborationism, Thiriart kept mostly quiet until the early 1960s, when he co-founded Jeune Europe, a movement that initially found common ground with members of the Organisation Armée Secrète, the French paramilitary and terrorist group opposed to Algeria’s independence from France.
After the publication in 1964 of his political testament, Un empire de 400 millions d’hommes: L’Europe, Thiriart militated for a centralized continental-wide party, working toward the unification of Europe. Claiming the existence of a single and Caucasian “community from Narvik to Cape Town, from Brest to Bucharest,” Thiriart’s group glommed onto a position found in nearly every organization falling under the umbrella of the New Right: The clear and present danger to Europe was not communist Russia but capitalist America. Through the several iterations of Thiriart’s groups — a chameleon-like trait common to organizations at both extremes of the political spectrum — they were all aimed, in Thiriart’s words, at forming a “global front against U.S. imperialism.”
The political scientists Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg, who retrace this idiosyncratic life in their indispensable account Far-Right Politics in Europe, note that Thiriart eventually reached out to Arab countries in his quest for a global front against America. Having begun his career in the company of white supremacists, Thiriart ended it in the company of Arab nationalists. His hope was to form international brigades that would carry on the struggle not just against the United States but also its partner in global crime, Israel. When he died in 1992, he apparently left behind several unfinished manuscripts arguing, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the battle against the United States was even more imperative.
While Thiriart’s place in the far-right solar system resembles an exoplanet, not so for the rather Jovian Alain de Benoist, the founder of GRECE, a French ethno-nationalist think tank. With GRECE’s creation in 1968, so too was born the term “New Right.” Just as the latter term is a catchall for a great variety of movements, the work of the think tank also tends to be eclectic. Benoist would be the first to reject comparisons between GRECE and, say, the American Heritage Foundation. The traditional division between left and right, he argues, is obsolete. By the “right,” Benoist announced in his book Vu de droite (“The Right View”), he means “the attitude that considers the diversity of the world, and as a consequence the related inequalities necessarily produced by it, to be a good, and the gradual homogenization of the world, advocated and realized by the 2,000-year-old discourse of egalitarian ideology, to be an evil.”
With this claim, Benoist challenged the entire spectrum of traditional political parties in France. Conservatives no less than progressives, Gaullists no less than Socialists, found little common ground with the territory staked out by Benoist. A small number of political figures tied to GRECE, most notably Alain Madelin, who served as a minister in the Jacques Chirac era, eventually slipped into mainstream conservatism. Tellingly, many others drifted in the 1980s and 1990s toward the National Front, most importantly men like Jean-Yves Le Gallou, Pierre Vial, and Yann Blot.
Not surprisingly, given his institution’s acronym, Benoist locates the proper European heritage in ancient (and pagan) Greece. While he portrays this as a cultural legacy, racism is never far from the surface. As the scholar Anne-Marie Duranton-Crabol observes, GRECE (if not ancient Greece) tends to “exalt racial values, which presuppose racial differences.” Like a Gallic Charles Murray, Benoist plays with words as he plays with fire, skillfully fudging the line between race and culture, value and difference. His scholarship gives a gleam of respectability to what his critics insist, quite simply, is a racist ideology.
While Benoist avoids such blunt language, this is not the case with those like Jean-Marie Le Pen who turn to him as an intellectual guarantor of their racist worldview. In a sulfurous interview he gave two years ago to the extreme right-wing paper Rivarol, Le Pen declared that France had to collaborate with Russia “in order to save boreal [northern] Europe and the white world.” By invoking the toxic claim that Europeans descend from an “arctic” or Aryan race, the elder Le Pen, and indeed Benoist, is not alone. Writers like Jean Raspail (one of Steve Bannon’s favorite authors), Eric Zemmour, and Renaud Camus all warn against what Renaud has described as “le grand replacement” — namely, the threat that immigration and globalization pose to the racial character of Europe.
Like Murray’s reputation, Benoist’s public status is, to say the least, controversial. In 2015, the best-selling leftist French intellectual Michel Onfray declared that he preferred to read a “valid analysis” written by Benoist than an “invalid analysis” written by, say, fellow celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. Then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls quickly accused Onfray of legitimizing not just Benoist’s ideas but by extension those of the National Front. In response, Onfray declared that only a “cretin” would judge a claim on the politics of its author and not the merits of its argument.
While Onfray’s reply was just, Valls’s provocation was not entirely unjust. Onfray, who places himself on the far-left, and Benoist, who is placed, despite his protests, on the far-right, share a common ideological ground. Both thinkers are appalled by the rise of religious extremism and are attracted to a post-religious, or pagan, basis for society; both thinkers identify American capitalism and popular culture as two of Europe’s principal foes. Benoist declares that the “idéologie du même,” or “ideology of the same,” flows from America, leveling everything in its path. For Onfray, consumerism is the rot at the heart of the West. In his just published book, Decadence, he asks: “Today, who would give his life for the gadgets of consumerism that have become cult objects in the religion of capitalism? No one.”
At the end of the day, according to Benoist and Onfray, the West is lurching toward the end of its day. Benoist’s prognosis is grim: “The world seems to have entered an implosive, in fact terminal, stage.”
In their survey, Camus and Lebourg cite Onfray’s positions as a measure of Benoist’s success. They emphasize the New Right’s key role in the “irruption in intellectual debate of ideas” in France — ideas that careen from the critique of anti-monotheism (especially in regard to Islam) and embrace of communitarianism, the lambasting of consumerism and the normalization “of discussions about the respective share of the innate and acquired in individual aptitudes.” While not all of their concerns overlap, GRECE and the National Front continue to share deep affinities.
Though these individuals did not stay, the same cannot be said for their ideas. From her embrace of French “sovereignism” to her admiration of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, from her emphasis on “national preference” to her attachment to a strong central state, Marine Le Pen has made GRECE’s ideas her own. While she rejects the European Union, Le Pen praises a free union of European nations. Though she would never use the term employed by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who repeatedly called for the union of “boreal peoples,” Le Pen nevertheless shares the same apocalyptic vision of the conflict between East and West found in the writings of Benoist (as well as those of the essayist Eric Zemmour and novelist Michel Houellebecq.) And it’s on the basis of this vision of an unavoidable civilizational conflict that Le Pen’s party believes Europe should be united, the formal degree to which is still to be determined.
What had begun as an apparently quixotic effort in the 1960s to influence the ideas of political and cultural leaders on the subject of Europe is now, a half-century later, an increasingly widespread and toxic worldview. It is an image of today’s united Europe cast in a dark mirror of apocalyptic and racialist thinking. In the case of France, voters will decide in less than two months whether or not those ideas will move from intellectual discourse to state policy.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. His most recent book is Boswell's Enlightenment.