Bumbling Boris the Confidence Trickster?

2 Jul 2016

The Brexit mess acquired a surrealist dimension on Thursday (30 June) when former London Mayor and Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson revealed he would not be standing to be Prime Minister of Britain. For Leave supporters, the decision must feel like being led, not to Churchill’s “sunlit uplands”, but the edge of a precipice in the “long island story”, before being invited to jump — on their own.

Yet a more deeply troubling moment of Trump-like cynicism came earlier in the week when outgoing PM David Cameron blamed on immigration Britain’s referendum vote to exit the European Union. At his final Brussels summit as PM on 28 June he vouched that he could have won the referendum if EU leaders had only granted his wish of an “emergency brake” on immigration. This when Germany moved heaven and earth last year to accommodate 1.1 million refugees mostly fleeing civil war in Syria, and Britain pledged to take 20,000 asylum seekers over five years — about the number that arrived at Munich Central Station on the first weekend of September.

Both the liberal and progressive sides of western politics know there has to be an upper limit on immigration (the hard part is where to set the bar, of course). And in Australia we know from the “Blainey controversy” of the 1980s that social considerations tied to the speed and changing ethnic mix of immigration are vital.

But we also know that a rule-of-thumb is that immigration lifts growth, which creates jobs, and that immigrants tend to put more into the system through taxes than they draw through welfare and public services. This is also the British experience.

The other main reason for the Brexit vote, we are told (though obviously not by Cameron himself), was the economy. This when Britain has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU and more people in work than at any time in British history. One doesn’t need an economics degree to compute that almost half British exports are to the EU and that the strength of the City depends on ready access to the European single market.

So how on earth did British “Remainers” lose the argument when not only the PM but the Opposition leader, a panacea of “experts”, not to mention President Obama, also came out staunchly for remain?

Feeling severed in the Platonic sense of having just lost one’s “other half”, some Remainers are blaming the truth-distorting Tory Press. Yet a broad church of British media, from the left-leaning Guardian and Mirror to the liberal Economist and conservative Times, backed Remain, and anyway, due to social media the so-called “legacy press” doesn’t have the influence it once did.

The reality is that immigration, the economy and questions like national sovereignty are hard to describe in a world where globalisation, the power of multinationals, and the mobility of capital have changed the game so radically. The “oceanic proliferating complexity” of such issues, to use a Saul Bellow phrase, is precisely what made the Leave campaign’s packaged opinion so attractive. People were patently taken in by the misleading little homilies and slogans (“Take back control”), bound up in nostalgia for a British Golden Age, whenever that was.

One of the big ironies of Brexit for many Europeans is that the EU is “Made in Britain” more than ever before, operating in the language of Shakespeare across 28 member countries and protected by the off-shore privileges of island remoteness, so neatly out of both the passport-free Schengen Zone and current planning to shore up Europe’s southern periphery — from whence came the refugee crisis.

Where EU leaders have got it wrong is that Brexit is less a crisis for Britain (though it is that), than the latest manifestation of a deep-seated European malady. For 25 years the European political class has kicked Europe whenever it has needed a boy for the kicking, and is wringing its hands today because a eurosceptic Prime Minister called for and did not get a declaration of faith in the European project.

The optimistic French view, meantime, is that the electro-shock of Brexit will revive the sick man that is Europe. Europe Mark 2 will signal a miraculous return to the spirit of 1957 (the founding Treaty of Rome), when the European promise was prosperity and political union in the service of the people. Unity between France and Germany will provide the basis for a renewed push towards what a former European Commission President called a Europe of “concentric circles”, the border with Turkey the outer circle, France and Germany at the epicentre.

But the fragility of that vision has been highlighted by “first circle” countries calling for Brexit to be rapid and Europe’s de facto leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, urging a more cautious (read slower) approach. The problem with concentric circles is that they don’t actually touch, of course, and it’s hard to see Poland or the proud Baltic states, for example, happy to be kept at a distance.

A sense of the risk of the EU unravelling is alive in the air in Germany and France because the fear is that Brexit has launched a dangerous dynamic of EU disintegration that, if uncontrolled, may, like Brexit itself, prove unstoppable. Perhaps this is something of which David Cameron, but also Boris “Opt-Out” Johnson, are painfully aware.

– Richard Ogier

Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist in Munich. He is a former Australian Embassy press attache in Paris.

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