Britain cannot have its cake and eat it, too

Francis Ghilès explores future scenarios in the United Kingdom and France after recent elections.

Lingering bitterness. Demonstrators from pro-EU group Open Britain protest outside of the Houses of Parliament in central London, last March. (AFP)


2017/06/25 Issue: 112 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès



Britain is an economy on the brink. Brexitology, which is a new form of astrology, suggests a soft version of Brexit will be kinder to the economy than the hard version. Electors, however, deserve better than the wishful thinking they were happy to indulge in when British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson told them a year ago that they could have their cake and eat it, too.

Hard facts show that the Brexit process is built on an enormous lie. The idea that Britain could take back control from the Europe­an Union was always an illusion. What is not is the damage that Brexit could inflict on the econo­my of London, to the detriment of the rest of the kingdom.

London raises one-third of Brit­ain’s tax revenue. Were it a nation-state it would have a budget surplus of 7% of gross domestic product. By contrast, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have budget deficits greater than 10% of their national incomes.

In other words, were it not for London, they would have to go hand in cap to the International Monetary Fund. The south-east region transfers more than $60 billion a year to the rest of the country. Every million dollars that is reduced by Brexit is a million off the National Health Service (NHS), a million more austerity for Scotland, the north of England and Wales.

That the economic opportuni­ties London offers and the cultural vibrancy it displays should be under attack from the majority of Britain’s political class is odd insofar as it is the cash cow that allows governments of all colour to promise high-quality public services, not least the NHS, which all regions want and expect.

Conservatives are even more hostile to London than Labour, with its recent manifesto calling for arts funding to be redistributed from the capital and many civil servants to be relocated by force. Such economic frivolity borders on economic madness. Surely the challenge is to improve the perfor­mance of the regions — Manches­ter’s recent success shows it can be done — not penalise London.

About 40% of London’s work­force is from abroad; in the hospitality sector that percentage is much higher. A Brexit clamp on migration of 100,000 people a year would impose economic sanctions on London. Slamming shut the door on the most cosmopolitan city in the world would be an act of self-mutilation. It is senseless.

Members of parliament from London should provide some sanity to Prime Minister Theresa May’s government. As Ulster MPs demand guarantees of an open border with the Repub­lic of Ireland to join in the coali­tion, so London should demand guarantees of open borders with Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

Most Brexiters want to bring back control over immigration but farmers want an exception for fruit pickers, builders for bricklayers, universities for foreign students and hospitals for nurses. London Mayor Sadiq Khan should do like California, which refuses to bow to US President Donald Trump’s proposed migrant expulsions.

Soft Brexit means leaving the European Union while staying in the single market and customs union. That would not allow Britain to start trade negotiations with other countries. It will mean continuing to pay large sums of money into the EU budget while having no access to structural funds that are so vital to Wales, which voted to leave last year.

In no way would it prevent the European Court of Justice from having full jurisdiction over Brit­ish matters to do with the single market. Britain would have no say over regulations that govern finan­cial services, social legislation and safety standards. It would not be able to limit immigration from EU members but British citizens living in countries of the union would lose EU citizenship rights.

Finally, Britain must foot a bill of more than $125 billion to stay in the single market. Contrary to what May and Brexiters have said, this is a very good deal for the European Union and an absolutely catastrophic one for Britain.

Many Europeans are thank­ing the British for their madness because two wilful Conservative Party decisions have vaccinated Europe against populism. Sup­port for the European Union has surged across the continent since the Brexit referendum in London, even in the other parts of the king­dom. There are many Eurosceptics in the European Union, not least of all in France. They now have the leisure of contemplating their dreams shattering the brick wall of reality.

How long will it be before the British realise that they have been taken for a ride by the most frivo­lous group of politicians that ever graced (if that is the right word) the halls of Westminster? How long will it take for Conservatives to recover their sanity and under­stand that an assault on the wealth and vibrancy of London could destroy the United Kingdom, po­litically and economically?

Is it not time London held the House of Commons for ransom for the greater good of the United Kingdom and receive a helping hand from Conservative MPs from London and Scotland and Labour MPs encouraged by Khan?


Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


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