Michael MacDowell: A Brexit report from the front
Though not intentional, our trips to Ireland and the United Kingdom bookended the Brexit dilemma. We visited Ireland June 23, 2016 when the U.K. voted to leave the EU and ironically were in London March 29 when that exit was to occur. It didn’t, and so the debate continues, and the stakes grow.
Americans ask why, when the U.K. voted to leave the EU, can’t they get it done? To say that the British are themselves tired of the Brexit bickering is an understatement. They are both exhausted and embarrassed by a proposed divorce that drags out in plain view of so many. A coalition of the British Conservative Party led by Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland hold a majority in Parliament, but within those parties there is no consensus to pass the exit plan which May worked out with the EU.
The sticking points are many, but among the most intractable are how to establish a “soft border” between the Republic of Ireland, an independent country that remains part of the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Currently with both countries in the EU, the porous border allows for the free flow of people and goods between the two countries. However, when the U.K. leaves the EU this will no longer be the case.
Obviously, the U.K. and the EU wish to avoid such a circumstance, but Brussels believes that if an EU and non-EU country enjoy a soft border then the other 28 EU countries might establish similar arrangements. This would allow other countries into the EU’s free-trade zone without requiring them to abide by the stipulations and regulations to which participating EU countries must adhere.
It is exactly these stipulations and regulations that caused many U.K. citizens to vote to leave the EU. Many in the U.K. are incensed that they must operate under regulations “established in Brussels” while having little to say about their passage or enforcement. To many in the U.K. these regulations amount to taxation on the products they produce or taxation without representation — sound familiar?
Some of these regulations have to do with the unique characteristics and cultures of countries in the EU and have little to do with commerce in the U.K. French agricultural production restrictions, various labor laws, sales restrictions and other EU rules hamper U.K. entrepreneurs and to a certain extent people’s freedom. The country has a long and proud tradition of governance by and for the people. To give that up to the whims of other EU countries is abhorrent to many there.
And of course, there is the immigration issue. A condition of EU membership is that citizens of any EU country can immigrate to any other EU country. This has been a bone of contention since the influx of Middle Eastern and African immigrants have flooded into Western Europe. U.K. residents are not xenophobic. But, lacking any border control worries citizens in a period of international terrorism.
All these issues more than cloud the resolution of Brexit. From this side of the Atlantic it is easy to point fingers and ask why the U.K. can’t follow through on what the majority of citizens who voted to leave the EU wanted. But the issues are not easy to resolve, and agreement and compromise aren’t either. For Americans to suggest that the Brits should find political compromise and “get it done already” is to say, “do as we say, not as we do.”