Opinion: Unravelling the Brexit conundrum

A germane photo of predominantly pro-EU protestors outside the UK House of Commons.
A germane photo of predominantly pro-EU protestors outside the UK House of Commons. Source: ERR

So the brakes are well and truly off Brexit juggernaut as it continues its unopposed trundle down the slope to god knows. The speed humps of the much raked-over up Irish backstop won't stop it, and nor will anything else at this late stage. All we can hope is there isn't a primary school at the bottom of the hill for it to go crashing into, which there won't be, of course.

At worst, our out-of-control truck may topple over into a (EU-subsidised) field and have both its pride, and that of the field's owner, sharply bruised. Something which both sides in this have already become inured to.

Just as the growth and proliferation of EU and quasi-EU bodies, institutions, regulations and mindsets took on a life of its own, so too has the concept of UK withdrawal done. It has done this in a unique way. I don't find the ''it's like the divorcee wanting everything''-type memes to be very helpful. Just as Brexit is a made-up, portmanteau term, so too is Brexit a chimera, a Frankenstein's monster which may indeed slay its creator, in some sense. The brakes are off, to return to the truck analogy, and there's no stopping whither Brexit will go. However, that was the case given the nature of EU and its associated organs once it grew beyond a certain critical mass anyway.

Quite a simple test which you can apply is this: Could you explain in a few sentences, off the cuff and with no looking at Wikipedia, the difference between the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of Europe, and the Council of the EU. Unless you are unusually switched on, or actually work for the EU, you won't.

In fact, even this is no guarantee. I recently ran the same litmus test past an Estonian MEP, who shall remain nameless but he has been known to take a tumble on occasion. He said you could find plenty of people involved at a relatively high level with the European project who couldn't adequately delineate the areas of responsibility either.

Human addiction to power structures

And this is before we even add in the EEA, the EFTA, the Schengen and the customs union, all areas relevant to what Britain's post-Brexit status may be.

My own theory on its manifold incarnations is that human beings are, quite simply, addicted to creating structures for themselves, to tinkering with, expanding, naming them and so on. The polyglot nature of the EU only brings many more known (and unknown) layers. In any case, when it comes to the EU and related propagation, the only way can be up. Exponentially so.

The EU truly is the Church of Rome writ large – it even loosely shares the borders of the medieval papacy, something popular TV historian David Starkey pointed out years ago on a show, most likely about the Tudors. Now, that something has aspects in common with catholicism, I'm not saying is a bad thing, but it brings us neatly to the question of precedent. A precedent for Brexit I mean.

There are actually very few, if any, precedents for UK withdrawal. At least if I'm to remain consistent with my claim that Brexit is one-of-a-kind. One very obvious superficial similarity comes from the break with Rome on the issue of the divorce of Henry VIII. This unfolded through the 1530s and led to a nationalisation of the church in England; still not Protestant but no longer Catholic.

The split with Rome had its fair share of leavers and remainers too. Many ordinary people during the horrific Marian persecutions during the reign of Henry's daughter, who tried to force a return to the EU of the day.

History does not repeat itself

But it's not the same really. We lack anything resembling a strong leader, on either side of the debate, not to mention any martyrs a la Thomas More. Furthermore, it wasn't just Britain, or rather England, that broke with Rome. Scotland did to, and established an even more protestant state church. In fact much of northern Europe put itself outside Rome's ambit in the ensuing decades, due to a whole slew of political, social, theological and even technological reasons.

Other chapters in history mentioned have focussed more on the supposed humiliation Britain is undergoing. The 1956 Suez Crisis, for instance. Some leavers might point to various backs-to-the-wall fights against all odds: Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Spanish Armada etc.

This is people's desire to find a pattern, a road-map to what is going on, however. A desire to explain the uncertain and to palliate their fear by saying it will be just like [insert other historical episode]. This even goes as far as a blood-thirsty fantasy of a rekindling of the troubles in Northern Ireland. But this too doesn't fit. The Troubles came to an end due to the situation being unwinnable. It followed th hard work of many politicians and others in Belfast, Dublin, London, and from the US and beyond. The EU can't take a scintilla of credit for 'solving' the border issue on the island of Ireland, a border which pre-dates it by several decades. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia, two of whose successor states have so far ended up in the EU, happened beyond its grasp too.

Nope, we're on our own here in these uncharted waters. The only thing which IS certain is that it will be no-deal. Maybe not in March, or even April, but it will be no-deal. The one thing everyone, not least the UK Foreign Office who used to refer to no-deal as ''highly unlikely'' on their info page for expats in Estonia, is in fact the precise opposite of that.

We're headed for no-deal

It will be no-deal since the situation has dragged on far too long for it to be anything other than that. Any solution under the sun would have been raked over by people with bigger brains than most of us, over the past two and a half years, so it's the default position.

It always was the default position, in fact. Brexit may have been a blow to UK pride but it's not been the EU's finest hour either. Naturally its poobahs are anxious to ensure noone else gets any ideas, pour encourager les autres, as it were.

It was no-deal, because the UK joined something else, the EEC, a free trade zone, in 1973. concerned voices were there right from the beginning, though from different quarters. The Labour Party held a referendum in 1975, and was long opposed to the free market zone, concerned with its effects on workers' rights. With the later, relentless march towards a united states of Europe bringing us through to the 80s and to Maastricht in the early 90s, euroscepticism was now the plaything of the right, with the concern of loss of sovereignty never quite going away, which brings us to the 2016 referendum.

The UK simply was the child's square peg which got firmly wedged in a round hole, and now can only be pulled out with a huge amount of brute force. The thing is that force is pulling from all different directions, rather than a unified one.

It was no-deal because the generation that joined is not the generation that is leaving, both amongst the general populace and its ''leaders''. The UK, as well as the EU, is simply too ill-served by the people at the top for there to be anyone remotely competent to bring a decisive withdrawal/non-withdrawal.

It was no-deal because the UK parliament is so toothless it can let Theresa May's government waste time dancing around the Norway and Canada models and only really exists to tell her no, you can't do that, after the fact.

It was also no-deal because the EU of course would allow nothing else. What gloss it applies to the no-deal Brexit is up to it, of course. Jean-Claude Juncker has occasionally thrown an appeasing scrap of meat, as he admits that we could have done this so much better. This is certainly true, but we're still talking about a power bloc where people who want to leave are labelled ''Nazis'' in their homeland. Never mind that a German-dominated federal Europe was exactly what the Nazis wanted to construct and, oh well, never mind...

Estonia and the EU

Donald Tusk is a curious figure. A man brought in ready-made, so to speak. A person who knew what it was like to live under Communism, he was involved in the Solidarity movement in his native Poland, yet this in fact makes him amongst the most fanatical of the true blue and golder EUers. The only way up was for Poland, and the EU has made him. In that sense he's more reminiscent of a more photogenic version of Mikhail Gorbachev, a product of the USSR who nonetheless saw its dismantling happen on his watch, which brings us to...

Estonia. What does Estonia get out of the EU, in the ''long perspective'' as it's called here. Its joining the EU, and the six-month tenure of the rotating Council of the EU presidency brought about a lot of prestige in the eyes of the people here, that much is certain. They knew what they were joining, too, which is just as well as they can't now leave.

Estonia didn't join in a vacuum, it was a part of the largest round of EU accessions together with the other two Baltic States, the four Visegrád countries, Slovenia and Cyprus. So from a ''old Europe'' perspective, Estonia is just another one of those smaller ''Eastern'' European countries who were suddenly in the EU.

Accession is not talked about in anything approaching the hushed tones that the era of the reassertion of independence is. Independence only started a decade and a half before EU accession, which is no time at all really. But the general feeling is of net benefit. The material gains, whilst not as in your face as they were in Lithuania at one time (the EU flag popping up everywhere on road construction sites and the like), have helped some people get pretty fat and happy. And good for them. I hope they can sleep well at night.

The eastward expansion of the EU, however, did happen too rapidly. This brought in large numbers of people who share the ''old'' European vision considerably less than even most Brits do. This is no fault of theirs of course. We are all products of environment. Estonia is moreover not notably guilty of the virulent rise in populism, compared with, say the Visegrád states.

100 years of … something

However, Estonia is in the CEE region, and EU expansion here has caused divide, instability, confrontation with Russia. It could have been handled so much better of course, but then couldn't everything.

The effects of Brexit itself on Estonia paradoxically will be minimal. The countries enjoy good bilateral relations, as demonstrated in the recent '100 years of friendship' championed by the British Embassy here. This marked the deployment of at least one Royal Naval squadron and other ships, men and material, supposedly aimed at ensuring Estonian independence. In reality, the forces were primarily aimed at supporting White Russia and its continuation in World War One, which ''continued'' down to the Versailles Treaty, and setting up St Petersburg as a rival 'White' bridgehead to 'Red' Moscow.

To cut a lengthy story a bit shorter, the EU is not going to interfere with the two countries getting along, and the position of the, perhaps 20,000, Estonians who live in the UK is not going to be jeopardised. There will be a few more hoops to jump over, and fewer Estonians will move to the UK than had previously been the case, and that's about the extent of it.

Estonia itself is too far from the UK and the core of the EU to be exposed by any economic effects of the withdrawal too; its restructural funds and the like are due for a massive reduction if that hasn't happened already, regardless of what the UK does.

No revolutionary change for the most part for UK citizens here

I contacted all 15 Estonian government ministries, plus a few other bodies like the police and the voting office, to ask them what would change here and in particular with reference to UK nationals living here (probably over 1,000 these days). The answer was almost unanimous, that not only would not much change post-Brexit, if anything, but neither was it their desire or in their interests to change anything. Barring the detection of criminals from or acting between the two countries, which will probably get harder, it will be business as usual, certainly to 2021.

Newcomers after that date may have more admin to get through. For those already with an ID card, even more so those who have been here 5 or more years, nothing really will change. The only other immediate difference is of course that UK expats will not be eligible to vote in the EU election in May, something I suspect many of them didn't do in previous ones, though I feel for those who did plug themselves in to the democratic process.

UK expats here are, it has to be said, a rather odd bunch of people. Things have probably improved more recently with the arrival of some newcomers who have come here to work, set up a business, study etc., and not simply due to a woman or in pursuit of cheap living (this latter is long gone anyway).

A gaggle of them (practically all male of course, as am I) attended a recent afternoon tea at the ambassador's residence. It was interesting to contrast the barrage of questions, some of them intelligent, many of them self-serving, with the stoicism displayed by Estonians living in London on a recent ETV show. Many times it looks like a peeing contest to see who has the most important ''very Brexit problem''.

So the UK expats here could take a leaf out of their Estonian counterparts over there, in short. Everything will pan out fine, there will be a few years of moderate chaos and lower growth in the UK before it re-emerges for the better.

I'm more concerned about what will happen with Estonia than with the UK, as regards the EU and its future as a whole, but for the meantime the brakes are off, we simply have to sit tight.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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