Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Ever since June 23, when the British public cast a stunning, if narrow, vote to leave the European Union, many of Britain’s wiser and more thoughtful political and business leaders have been living in a state of wishful thinking, cherishing the hope that somehow, the decision to end 45 years of increasing integration with Europe would be abandoned or undone — an exit from Brexit, so to speak.
On Wednesday, that hope ended. British Prime Minister Theresa May put her signature to a letter invoking the EU’s Article 50, triggering an irreversible process of divorce and the start of at least two years of negotiations over terms. To the “remain” camp, those who opposed the split, the action is a self-inflicted wound of historic magnitude. To Brexit supporters, it’s the dawn of a new era of British economic supremacy, though they can’t quite define what that will look like. On the specifics, any sensible person would have to give the debate to the Remain side.
Few commentators put their case as succinctly as the editorial board of the firmly pro-Europe Observer newspaper, over the weekend. “Like sheep, the British people are being herded off a cliff,” the paper declared, “duped and misled by the most irresponsible, least trustworthy government in living memory.”
Car manufacturers are threatening to leave Britain, the Observer reported, as are banks and other institutions that earlier had turned London into the financial capital of Europe. Britain’s National Health Service will lose tens of thousands of doctors and nurses prompted to return to their home countries by the uncertainties of residency in a post-Brexit Britain.
To Brexit opponents, these were totally unnecessary developments. Brexit happened because its voters were caught up in a nationalistic spasm fostered by a few opportunistic leaders who had little expectation of succeeding, and therefore were unprepared for victory. The EU had become a generic, sloganized shorthand for bureaucracy, much like your local DMV in the U.S. Discontented voters gave little attention to the benefits of EU membership, and the country’s political establishment devoted little effort to emphasizing how much was at stake.
Communities that survived on EU resources voted to leave. They included Ebbw Vale, Wales, whose voters chose “leave” while served by a highway and rail line financed with European Union funds, as were job training programs, improvements to the town center and a new college. Meanwhile, promises made by the leave party have already been shown to have been lies. Within days of the vote, they were disavowing such promises that 350 million pounds ($435 million) would be newly available per week for the health service as soon as the EU fetters were removed.
Britain is just beginning to sense the consequences of trying to unravel an economic fabric that took more than four decades to knit. The British pound lost some 11.5 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar and the euro in the immediate aftermath of the vote, and never regained its footing. That has meant higher prices for British consumers for any foreign-sourced products, including food, gasoline, auto parts or clothing. The Daily Mirror recorded inflationary prices in February for baked beans (up 9 percent), beer (up 4 percent) and bread (up as much as 5 percent).
London seems on the verge of ceding at least part of its financial supremacy to Paris; Frankfurt, Germany; or Dublin, Ireland; or a combination of all three.
Some also observe, fairly, that Britain is not entirely without leverage in the coming talks. The EU still needs trade with Britain in some form, so it might not take the harshest position. Nor is the EU as unified as it seems on the surface; different member countries have different interests to protect in negotiations.
“Brexit does not spell disaster,” said Mogens Peter Carl, a former trade official for the European Commission. “Far from it. It is the responsibility of governments to make these negotiations succeed, and quickly.”
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