Politics brings out strong emotions in everyone. Even the British, with their reputation for keeping calm and carrying on, apparently are not immune. Perhaps that reputation is merely a hangover from the long-gone British Empire — it surely doesn’t apply to the United Kingdom of 2017.
Consider the political decisions Britons have made over the past year. Last June, they decided — albeit narrowly — to withdraw from the European Union. And in last month’s snap general election, they delivered an outcome that only reinforces the impression that British pragmatism is in retreat.
The election — in which the Conservative Party lost its majority, resulting in a hung parliament — suggests how far removed from the rest of the country the political class in Westminster has become. Indeed, the UK appears to be having not just a political and identity crisis, but also a crisis of confidence in its political and economic elites since the 2008 global financial crisis.
This will not make the ongoing Brexit talks any easier. The EU’s counterpart in the negotiations is a severely weakened government in a state of crisis. But the EU’s negotiators cannot lose sight of the fact that even outside the union, the UK will remain important to Europe. One of the biggest risks now, for the EU as much as for the UK, is that the latter will leave with nothing and end up in an even worse state than it’s already in.
Future historians will probably look back at 2016 and 2017 with great interest. It is unprecedented for a country to abandon a highly advantageous geopolitical and economic position simply because it is experiencing a prolonged identity crisis. Before Brexit got underway, the UK had a very strong hand to play within the EU and thus on the world stage, owing not least to its special relationship with the United States.
Moreover, the UK has a tradition of liberalism and global engagement, especially with Europe and the euro zone. London has long been a financial center for the entire continent. And the British economy is — or, at least, was — a gateway for many international corporations seeking access to the EU single market and the euro zone, despite the UK’s refusal to join the single currency.
Still, it’s worth remembering that by the early 1970s, the UK had lost its empire and the political clout that came with it, and that it only managed to reverse its economic decline by joining the European Community (the precursor to the EU) in 1973. Regrettably, Britons rarely acknowledge this fact. Instead, a vocal segment of Britain’s political class and electorate has long blamed the EU and its institutions — some of which require member states to cede part of their sovereignty — for all the evils of this world.