Harry Hagopian

Haste Makes Waste?

The UK must strive to negotiate an exit from the EU that preserves social cohesion and national interests without forfeiting future hopes or freedoms

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, delivers a speech in London on July 4, 2016, announcing that he was stepping down as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). (AFP/Ben Stansall)

Many are those who will have noticed British Prime Minister David Cameron looking distinctly ill at ease with his 27 counterparts of the EU Council of Ministers at the obligatory photo call in Brussels on June 28. But what really drew my attention is the relish with which the then UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage savored his moment in the European Parliament. He heaped scorn on his fellow MEP’s as he coarsely reminded them that they had lost a bet he had started with them 17 years ago to pull the UK out of the EU. This was not magnanimity in victory, or in my opinion patriotism gone unchecked, but a rapacious case of jingoism rattling the sense of decency that still remains a feature of our country despite the hike in post-Brexit incidents of racism.


I closed my eyes for a moment as Farage was ‘teasing’ (to use his words to the press later) the EU deputies and I could almost hear the high-decibel cheers he got from the likes of the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, the Austrian far-rightist Norbert Hofer and almost certainly from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. True, the political elite have got themselves into a pickle over this EU Referendum. But my understanding of leadership is that politicians should now “lead” by trying to ensure a future arrangement for the UK that respects the choice of Leavers in a way that also understands the fears of Remainers.


On a practical level, and away from high-noon politics or the usual bluster, this means that we in the UK should move beyond the bruised Platonic or Aristotelian discernment of democracy and elect a new prime minister who can unite the country. Conversely, the Labour Party should re-discover its cohesion, let alone coherence, as an opposition that would do its job of holding government accountable. Otherwise, it could painfully splinter away.


So let me propose a few start-up thoughts at this very early stage in the process that might well help with future negotiations as much as with the stability and unity of the British Isles.


  • The ‘Regrexit’ petition that has attracted almost 4 million signatures as well as the ‘Marches for Europe’ in London, York and elsewhere are indications of frustration and despondency by those who lost the referendum. But they are also a symptom of the pent-up anger in many segments of society that goes back at least to the banking crisis of 2008 and impacts those who feel let down by the Establishment.


  • This referendum is not binding and only has a persuasive impact on politicians’ minds. There were 16 million Remainers - 48% of voters - who wanted to stay in the EU and it is therefore unsurprising that they expect their voices to be heard too. It is also a fact that the EU referendum does not impinge upon the decisions of Parliament which remains sovereign and which must now debate this outcome before invoking Article 50. As such, and much as it is an important indication of the will of the majority, politicians should work with the referendum result without being solely mesmerized by ideological and historical attitudes.


  • The outcome of the vote shows that both the UK and the EU remain dyslexic over our role within the EU27. We in the UK are politically bipolar in that we would be happy with the benefits but do not wish to pay the costs. However, I would suggest that the four freedoms upon which the EU was founded –namely movement of goods, capital, labor and services –cannot be obviated from the European treaties simply to accommodate the UK’s wishes. Yet, I am quite convinced –as are many European colleagues –that we are stronger together and can work around those four F’s deftly and creatively. After all, they are not etched in stone.


  • The EU buzzword last century was ‘integration’. Now, with the populist anger of Europeans across many countries against those ruling elites who are perceived to live in bubbles (which is not entirely untrue), the new buzzword is ‘disintegration’. So how do we keep this huge economic (yes, it is still strong) and political (yes, it remains strong) group of (theoretically but not yet practically) 27 member-states together and in so doing not disassemble all ties between the UK and Brussels? In other words, how do we apply ourselves to the negotiating task of implementing the social and political brakes on the unfettered freedom of movement without turning its engine off entirely? It is perhaps by recalling that “haste is waste”.


  • In my opinion, and once the newly-chosen prime minister is ready to cross the Rubicon, our best option would be to forge an agreement that comes close to the European Economic Area (EEA) that countries like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have applied in their relations with the EU. (Switzerland is neither an EU nor an EEA member, but is part of the single market). Otherwise put, we should explore whether ‘integration without representation’ would allow us to exit the EU but keep us within a single market. It also admits the principle of freedom of movement whilst applying the emergency brakes on immigration available within the EU treaty to cases of social or economic destabilization.


And what about any impact of this decision on the MENA region?


Analysts such as Jane Kinninmont from the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London have opined that the opportunities to work on peace, rule of law or human rights could diminish with an exit, and UK relations with North Africa would end up being de-prioritized whilst trade relations with the wealthier Gulf would become stronger. Quite possible, but one key barometer remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the EU is the biggest donor to Palestine as well as its largest trade partner. It is also a member of the [comatose] Quartet. The UK would be able to contribute its views, as Norway does, but its influence would be less effective when faced with a common EU position.


This rationale also applies to development issues where the shifts in post-Brexit politics and the extent of economic constraints would mean that the EU as a bloc has unrivaled economic weight and development clout. It is better placed to focus on issues of human rights and international law than individual member states.


I keep hearing that it is not possible to tailor an agreement that would benefit both the UK and the EU. I am told time and again that Britons do not want to work with the EU and that the Europeans are equally peeved with us. I disagree with this pessimism and believe an arrangement is feasible if good will exists within both camps. After all, an exit from the single market would be ironic when one recalls that the UK helped put the single market together many decades ago just as it also encouraged the freedom of movement into the EU from former Soviet republics. I still recall those arguments for and against freedom of movement from Eastern Europe. Some EU member-states were even convinced then that the UK was lobbying for this right simply to dilute the effectiveness of the core movement.


Much of Europe today faces giddying challenges and it simply cannot be run by the mystic apes or governed by sour grapes. Leavers and Remainers can opt to stay cloistered in their own echo chambers and talk over each other whilst polarizing their citizens and pushing the frontiers of xenophobia to higher levels. Or, in the words of the constitutional expert Tom Dalyell, politicians can ‘have balls’ to negotiate a middle-of-the-road deal that mirrors the close outcome of the referendum, preserves our social cohesion and national interests without forfeiting our future hopes or freedoms. And –critically– nobody should ignore the younger generations who voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe and whose hopes for their tomorrow should not be checkmated by our choices today.


In the final analysis, the UK and EU should think hard whether it is better for neighbors to live together in a semi-detached edifice or whether detachment is the answer. The referendum is one paradigm but not the whole answer.

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, delivers a speech in London on July 4, 2016, announcing that he was stepping down as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). (AFP/Ben Stansall)

The UK should move beyond the bruised Platonic or Aristotelian discernment of democracy and elect a new prime minister who can unite the country.