Tomorrow, on 29 March 2017, Theresa May will formally give notice of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union. To some it will be the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams, to others the realisation of their worst nightmare. Those of us old enough to remember the tortuous process leading to the UK’s membership of what was then known as the Common Market may be permitted a wry smile. Every time General de Gaulle said ‘non’, the press reacted with indignation. How dare he refuse us admission, when we won the War for those ungrateful French! In recent months we have been treated to a curious re-working of the old theme, although now the enemy is Chancellor Merkel and Germany’s economic domination of Europe. For far too long our politicians and barrack room lawyers have played the game of blaming the EU for everything wrong in the UK, yet many of the things about which we worry and fret are outside the scope of EU legislation — we ourselves decide about tax, healthcare and education, for example. Much more rarely have we seen anyone lauding the benefitss of co-operation or even acknowledging the subsidies and grants we have enjoyed in various areas.
Tomorrow, all that begins to change. So, do we stand on the brink of the abyss or at the entrance to the Promised Land? My own view is that it is far too early to say, although I do have grave reservations about the desirability of our leaving the EU. I have not been impressed by the arguments brought forward in support of Brexit, many of which have shown a surprising lack of understanding of some basic economic concepts (think of that oft-repeated claim about our being the world’s fifth largest economy— currently the sixth as it happens — with scant regard for what the phrase means or even how the ranking is calculated) or have made large promises the government of the day may not choose or be able to keep (think of that Brext ‘bus promise of £350 million more to the NHS.) Those in favour of our remaining in the EU have done a poor job of arguing its case and only now does it seem to have struck some people that there is a very real possibility of the break-up of the UK — not just Scotland seceeding from the Union, but Northern Ireland, too, which faces a particularly difficult problem over its border with the Republic. The implications for the EU itself, though commonly brushed aside in the British Government’s determination to secure ‘what’s best for us’, are important considerations. Could we see a break-up of the EU as a whole? What would that mean for the peace and prosperity of us all? And what will be the cost of Brexit, for all concerned? Has anyone any real idea?
Today, my own thoughts and prayers are with those who have to negotiate the terms of Brexit — the politicians and civil sevants, not just of the UK, but also of the remaining twenty-seven EU member States; those whose lives are ‘on hold’ while they wait to hear whether they are to be able to continue to live in the countries to which they have hitherto had free access; and with those who, like myself, have never seen any contradiction between being a patriot and a citizen of the EU. In 1973 when news came through of our having joined the Common Market, friends and I toasted a future in which there would be no more European wars, no more senseless divisions. Was that the fleeting idealism of youth, or did we grasp something our older selves have forgotten or no longer value? Only time will tell.