Beyond the National Interest: The Case for Harsh Political Justice

As David Davis and his team of Brexit negotiators stumble from one mishap to the next, I explain the (not entirely spite-based) reasons why I’m always happy at the thought of Michel Barnier giving him hell from me

28/09/17

You could write a book on the damage Brexit threatens to do, and has already done, to the UK. I don’t plan to go into such in-depth economic and technical analysis but, lest I be accused of completely ignoring the national interest, here are some brief highlights:

  • The sluggish economy putting jobs at risk
  • The falling pound making imports more expensive, driving up the costs of everyday essentials as well as making holidays much more expensive
  • Tens of billions of pounds’ worth of extra borrowing blowing a hole in the national budget
  • Migrant labour shortages threatening recruitment crises in various trades
  • A sharp drop in EU nationals registering as nurses, threatening to push the already stretched NHS beyond breaking point
  • Food safety standards being regressed as the trade minister tries to compensate for the potential loss of single market access through desperate trade negotiations with Donald Trump’s administration
  • Increased terrorism risk due to potential loss of international co-operation on security

Personally, though, these many examples of economic stupidity don’t represent my biggest gripe with the Brexit movement. What gets to me most is this:

Brexiteers frankly have an appalling track record when it comes to ethics.

I first need to establish an important point – we indigenous Brits are very fortunate to have been born into a really nice country. Of course, the political right loves to remind us of the UK’s many problems (usually with the intention of scapegoating what they would call the “bloody foreigners” for each and every one), but as hard as they may try, they cannot deny the simple truth that our standards of wealth, our living conditions and the stability of our society far exceed the global average.

What did we do to earn all this? Unless you’re a (now elderly) veteran of World War 2, in which case you might actually have a tiny bit of basis for the whole “war-won privilege argument”, the answer is not a lot. (In later articles I will no doubt re-visit one of my pet hates – the hypocritical breed of forty-somethings who like to lecture me on “how WE (?!) won the war”.) Of course, as individuals we still have to earn our own personal slice of the nation’s wealth, and some are denied the opportunity to do so for various reasons, but the state of the wider world shows us that living in a society where hard work is (mostly) fairly rewarded is good fortune in itself. In short, the (sometimes inconvenient) truth, whether or not you have the stomach to accept it, is that we Brits are lucky.

The EU referendum, therefore, offered us a choice. The question in brief was “Shall we share?”

Probably the most hotly contested issue in the referendum campaign was immigration. In simple terms, we indigenous Brits were asked to choose between keeping our country open to those who might seek a better life here, or keeping the green and pleasant land all to ourselves by slamming the door in the faces of those less fortunate than us in the circumstances of their birth.

EU budget contributions were another key talking point. Given that we as a country have wealth, we were asked to decide whether to carry on sharing a small piece of it for the good of our much poorer EU neighbours; here I refer not to the other “major”, prosperous EU states such as France and Germany, but to the more obscure eastern European ones like Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Estonia.

Lack of palatability is perhaps the reason why mainstream politics has at no point openly discussed the ethical implications of these issues. That’s why I found the referendum campaign so tiresome. I didn’t agree with a word the Leavers said, but of course as a die-hard Remainer I didn’t expect to. The real frustration was that I found my own side’s rhetoric equally galling. David Cameron and his team focused entirely on telling us why EU membership was best for Britain (an argument which was fair enough in itself, given that developments since the referendum have increasingly shown that he was absolutely right) but by the end I was screaming at the television in frustration, longing for just a five-minute window in which we could remember that the UK is just one of the EU’s 28 members, stop being so selfish, and give a bit of thought as to how our actions might affect everyone else.

We know, of course, what happened next. 52% of voters (a category which forcibly excluded EU immigrants for some dubious and deeply undemocratic reason, but that’s a story for another time) voted Leave. Selfishness and greed won the day. And so I make the following summary:

The Leave Campaign in one sentence: “I’m alright, Jack.”

So where does this leave us now? For the purpose of this article, I’ll do something I almost never do – I’ll assume that Brexit cannot be stopped. Whatever happens next, all of us who live in the UK, Leavers or Remainers, will have to live through it. The consequences of the government getting the Brexit negotiations wrong could be incredibly severe for us all, so the casual observer might be forgiven for expecting a miserable old Remoaner like myself to let by-gones be by-gones, and hope for the best.

Yet I do not wish the British negotiators any success whatsoever.

I like to think that that’s not just spite, anger and vengefulness talking, though to my shame I must admit that they play a small part (I am battling mental health issues aggravated by Brexit, after all). My main thought process is that, however bad the consequences of a failed Brexit could be, the consequences of David Davis’ right-wing negotiating team actually achieving their dark aspirations could be a great deal worse – perhaps not for Britain, but certainly for humanity as a whole.

Since the referendum, a distinction has emerged between the “normal” Brexit movement (ethically questionable) and the “hard” Brexit movement (ethically very unsound). It looks like the government, and particularly David Davis and his team, lean strongly towards the latter school of thought. These politicians have adopted a so-called “have our cake and eat it” approach and, in doing so, taken the Brexiteer mentality of nationalism-fuelled selfishness to a whole new level.

Consider, for example, the rights of EU immigrants. Common sense and basic human decency dictate that the importance of this issue really should go without saying. For a start, immigrants are human beings. Overwhelming evidence is increasingly mounting to dispel the myth that they are a drain on the UK’s resources and prove that they are, in fact, the exact opposite (again, I plan to say much more on this in future articles). Many of these people have lived in the UK for decades. Being forced to leave their adopted homeland would be tantamount to losing everything they know and many have lived in constant fear of this very fate since the referendum, causing them severe emotional harm which, whatever is decided now or in the future, can never be fully undone. Yet the UK government has consistently treated these human beings like bargaining chips, making “offers” to the EU on their rights, as if they consider the right of immigrants to live without fear as being somehow negotiable.

Another key issue is the so-called “divorce bill”. The British government have persisted in their attempts to make this issue seem mind-bogglingly complicated, when in fact it is very simple:

The UK has pre-existing financial commitments to the EU it has a responsibility to settle. No ifs, no buts.

Psychologists, of course, would describe the above statement as an example of an autist seeing everything in black and white. For me, however, some things – financial responsibility and moral accountability for example – really are black and white. Davis and his team seem to delight in inventing their own “grey areas” in order to facilitate their unethical conduct. The UK government has tried (often successfully) to capitalise on the fickle tide of ill-informed, right-wing populism to make out that the EU is demanding a hand-out from the UK, or that the divorce bill is somehow a process by which the UK will “purchase” a trade deal with the EU. Neither of these assessments of the situation are remotely accurate.

Fortunately, in the EU’s calmly determined chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, Davis has been thoroughly outmatched. Barnier and his team have repeatedly told the UK that talks cannot move on to trade until the “divorce bill” is settled. They have also rigorously defended the rights of EU immigrants by refusing to accept compromises on something which, ethically speaking, really shouldn’t be compromised on. The EU’s solid position was summed up in a speech by a somewhat frustrated Michel Barnier following the third round of talks:

Barnier’s Assertion: The UK isn’t taking its obligations seriously enough.

In response, Davis used a classic right-wing trick; rely on a tagline. He called on the EU to be more “creative and imaginative”, which at face value sounds like a perfectly reasonable request – it certainly struck a chord with Davis’ supporters. Political statements always need to be deconstructed, however, and looking at this notion in context shows just how underhand this move really was. Allow me to give my own interpretation on what David Davis was really saying:

Davis’ Assertion: The UK has commitments and it’s only fair to honour them, but those commitments are no longer convenient. Therefore, we should use our imagination to pretend they don’t exist. Alternatively, we could “creatively” force the rest of Europe to pay the price of British greed.

In short, there seems to be a fair bit of ideological bullying going on. Davis and his team have tried to imply that their counter-parts are stubborn and uncooperative because of their perseverance in standing up for fairness and refusing to let the UK rip the EU off.

Through their negotiators’ solidarity and determination, the EU have of course defended their own interests, as is their right in a political conflict they did not instigate. They have defended the unity of Europe; after all, if the UK had pulled off its “have your cake and eat it” approach and succeeded in its intention to blatantly exploit the EU, other affluent member states may well have tried to do the same, which could, in the end, have led to the collapse of the EU and the complete loss of any support (financial or otherwise) for the deprived countries of Eastern Europe. But, most of all, Barnier and his team have defended ethics. They have made it very clear that they will not allow the UK to exploit its European neighbours, but that the UK must bear the full consequences of its own selfish actions.

Theresa May’s recent speech in Florence marked the beginning of what could be a turning point in the government’s attitude. It seems that Barnier’s persistence is getting through at last – the Tories and their followers are finally realising that this selfish and amoral behaviour will not prevail. There is still a long way to go before the damage done is healed, and an even longer way to go before I personally develop even an ounce of respect for Theresa May’s government, but finally the future looks just a little brighter for those in need – whether they be hard-working immigrants exposed to fear and contempt in the UK, or poorer nations in Eastern Europe worrying about loss of support – and we have the stubborn EU negotiators to thank for all of that.

In conclusion, Barnier and his team have stood up for what is right.

That’s why I personally look at the EU’s hard-line negotiating stance with nothing but admiration. That’s why I’m willing to set aside the national interest, even, as a UK resident, my own personal interests, and stand in the EU’s corner, where ethics are upheld.

That’s why Michel Barnier has my blessing to come down on David Davis and the UK like a ton of bricks.

This is where I reach the final and most important part of Europe-related political activism – yell so loud they hear you in Brussels. Since even I cannot literally shout that loudly, my plan is to follow up this article with an open letter of support to Michel Barnier and his team, urging them to continue to stick to their guns, and assuring them of my ongoing support and respect even in the face of the damage that a failed Brexit could do to the country that is my physical home. After all, it wasn’t the EU that asked for Brexit. I intend to post my letter on a petition-style platform for supporters to sign – watch this space for news of that.

Justice, unfortunately, demands retribution.

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