In a talk in Bern on Monday 30 April, the UK’s former Minister of Europe, Dr Denis MacShane, will warn that the Brexit saga is only just beginning and will cause harm to all of Europe, including Switzerland as well as the UK.
Dr MacShane will say:
“It is now nearly two years since the British voted to leave Europe. There is no sense of what Brexit means. It was a vote. It has been a difficult discussion with Brussels. It has been a polemic. But it has still not happened.
The manager of one of our best football teams, Jürgen Klopp, said recently “The EU is not perfect but it was the best idea we had. History has always shown that when we stay together we can sort out our problems. When we split we start fighting. There was no time in history where division creates success. So, for me, Brexit still makes no sense.”
But let us not forget, Brexit has not yet happened. We are living through what the French would call un drole de Brexit – the amputation from Europe has been announced but has not happened.
No-one knows what final form Brexit will take.
But whatever type of Brexit takes place, and it may be years of bad-tempered discussions between London and Brussels before we have any idea of what Brexit will mean, it will be lose-lose for Britain, for all of Europe, for Switzerland. It is the worst wrong turning taken by Europe in 70 years.
Brexit represents the closing of the mind and the closing of borders to commerce, to people, to fresh ideas.
Brexit lines up with Donald Trump, with Viktor Orban, with President Erdogan, with Vladimir Putin as a symbol of a new politics based on nation über Alles.
Brexit was a triumph of English nationalism over Scottish identity. It was a triumph of the old over the young. It was a triumph of identity politics and xenophobia. It was a triumph of rich elites – just 5 rich men paid for 61 per cent of the costs of the anti-EU campaign.
The most powerful support for Brexit came from men who do not live or pay taxes in Britain or even have a British passport–like Rupert Murdochm whose media empire spent 20 years campaigning in favour of Brexit.
There will be collateral damage to every other European country as a result of Brexit.
If the UK leaves the EU customs union, then Ireland will see the return of a physical border in the sense of the kind of border posts that exist on the main road going between Switzerland and its EU neighbours.
It does not matter if there are no controls on people or if customs controls are light and hi-tech. There will still be a physical border which has not been in the island of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
There are political forces in Ireland which regard the Good Friday Agreement as the betrayal of the cause of a United Ireland ruled as a republic from Dublin with no presence of the British state on Irish soil.
Earlier this month a march of several thousand headed by a men and women in military uniform took place in West Belfast in support of a united Ireland.
In the century since Ireland won its independence after a vicious war of Independence against Britain in 1920 followed by a savage civil war, many in Ireland have refused to accept the settlement based on the divided island with the north East corner under control from London.
Throughout the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1960s to the 1990s the favourite target for Irish nationlists were the English border posts on the 500 km frontier between Ireland under British rule and the rest of the country.
That is why the chief police officer in Northern Ireland, as well as the former head of MI6, and the former prime minister, Sir John Major, have all warned of a return to violence if the UK leaves the EU Customs Union and there is a return to a physical border.
Today you drive between northern Ireland in the UK and the Republic of Ireland – both in the EU – as you might drive from the Canton of Geneva to the Canton of Vaud or from the Canton of Fribourg into the Canton of Bern.
When the UK leaves the EU and if the Brexit ideologues insist – as they do – that means leaving the EU Customs Union – then WTO rules mandate proper checks on goods crossing the border just as Switzerland has strict limits on how much meat or wine can be brought into Switzerland from supermarket in EU neighbouring states.
So stand by for a return to violence if what is today an Ireland without borders brings them back.
France is another collateral victim. Like the Netherlands, the French will have to pay for new customs officers and customs check points on all the ports going into continental Europe. It is not just a question of tariffs. Today, 49% of all UK exports go to Europe. Today if you make a product or offer a service like an insurance policy, a TV show, an investment fund, or a place at a university there is no barrier to such exchange in EU member states thanks to everyone accepting common rules overseen by organisations like the European Air Safety Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, the European Medicines Agency, and other bodies whose rules are accepted by all member states and which are enforced by the Court of Justice of the European Union.
There are 2 million British citizens living and working in EU member states, especially in the warmer climates of Spain, Italy, or southern France. There are 3 million European citizens working in Britain in the health service sector, serving coffee and working in pop-up restaurants, in construction, in driving and doing hard work in the fields where vegetables are pulled out of the soil and fruit picked from trees and bushes – work British people have never wanted to do.
Creating a giant new bureaucracy to handle the immigration of Europeans into Britain and Brits into Europe will be costly and complicated with many mistakes.
There is now an ugly anti-European xenophobia in England since the Brexit vote. A French friend’s daughter was insulted, shouted at and punched by young English boys on the bus because she was speaking French. At a fishing pond near Oxford a notice was put up saying “No Poles or East European Allowed to Fish Here.” In 1940, Britain was happy to have Poles and Czechs fly Spitfires to defend Britain against Nazi domination. Today the Poles and Czechs are told they are unwelcome.
For Switzerland, there will be endless collateral damage from Brexit. All sorts of arrangements the Swiss have been able to make with the EU since the decision not to enter the EEA in 1992 and hopes of future agreements that benefit Switzerland are now under the spotlight in case they set precedents for the UK repudiating Europe but still hoping to keep certain advantages.
Last week the CEO of Airbus, Tom Enders, warned that Airbus could not guarantee future new investment in the UK where Airbus makes all its wings if the current free flow of components, data, and qualified personnel is hindered.
The Ambassador of Japan which has more than 1,000 firms investing in the UK warned that Japanese firms like Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and others are “currently considering and thinking and watching very closely what they need to do. That is why they are not investing additionally today.
“The reason that many of those companies have come is that this is the best gateway to Europe. If that is in danger,” said the Ambassador, “if that is no longer sustainable, of course they will have to look at what they will have to do.”
This language from the normally very cautious Japanese diplomat is like him standing naked in front of Parliament shouting at MPs they must do something about Brexit before it is too late.
Swiss diplomats and government officials are very discreet but every Swiss firm currently operating in London and the UK able to bring in the best people and able to export and trade from London to every corner of Europe as their operations are located with the EU for the moment is asking hard questions about their future operations in Britain.
But in Britain itself there is a dialogue of the deaf. The pro-Brexit media and politicians insist it will be wonderful for Britain. Those more worried do not know how to reverse a decision taken by a plebiscite. Never before in British history has such a major decision changing the economic, constitutional, geo-political, social and immigration policy of Britain been decided by a vote of 37 per cent of the total electorate.
We have no tradition of how to handle a referendum decision. Is it sacrosanct? Can it be challenged? Now that people have much more information, should a new referendum take place? Is parliament always inferior to a decision of a little more than one-third of all eligible voters?
These are big questions but there is no real debate in British politics, which has a very weak political class and leadership in the years since the Brexit referendum.
Brexit is like a political Ebola virus sucking the life juice out of politics and government.
In the end Brexit will be finally decided by what happens in the rest of Europe. According to a report from the Breugel Institute in Brussels last week, the increase of European GNI (Gross National Income) between 2017 and 2027 will amount to 28.1 per cent. If this kind of economic performance is maintained and if the reform energy of President Macron is sustained in the next five-year period of EU governance 2019-2024, then British hostility to Europe may change.
The Brexit saga in Britain is only writing its first chapter. Brexit will dominate British and European politics for many years to come.”
Dr Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe and a Senior Adivsor at Avisa Partners in Brussels. He invented the word Brexit in 2012 and has written three books on Brexit