In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
Christian organisations are hesitant to openly express any opinion because they know that their members are very divided.
This week in the news briefings that I read I came across two very interesting statements in relation to Brexit and passporting for financial services, the system by which a financial product licensed in one EU member state can be traded in all the other 27 countries without further approval being needed.
Statement No. 1: Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, in her Brexit speech on 2 March:
“If we were to accept passporting we’d just be a rule-taker, we’d have to abide by the rules that were being set elsewhere and given the importance of financial stability of ensuring the City of London, we can’t just take the same rules without any say in them.”
Statement No. 2: Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, speaking on the radio show ‘Pienaar’s Politics’ on 4 March:
“Passporting really matters for financial services firms. Something needs to be put in its place.”
These two statements, side by side, show the essential problem of the Brexit negotiations. The UK government rejects most aspects of the status quo with the EU (customs union, single market, financial services passporting, etc.). There is a certain area where the loss of the status quo will create enormous difficulties. The government acknowledges the difficulties, but fails to come up with any meaningful proposal for addressing them. And financial and professional services are no trivial issue: they make up 11% of the UK’s GDP and provide 2.2 million jobs.
We see the same problem in relation to Northern Ireland. Everybody agrees on the undesirability of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The UK government rejects the EU’s suggestion of Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union but, almost a year after the notice to leave the EU was given, has failed to come up with anything meaningful which could form a basis for negotiation, talking only vaguely about ‘technological solutions’. And this too is a crucial issue: the peace and security of British and Irish citizens is at stake.
Those who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum did so for a variety of reasons, such as regaining national sovereignty, leaving a doomed project, taking control of immigration, no longer having to pay £350 million every week into the EU coffers. From the people I have spoken with, most of these Leavers thought that these objectives could be achieved with minimal disruption to Britain’s economic and political life.
Hardly anybody realised how difficult it would be to extract the UK from the EU, because the public had been, and is still being seriously misinformed by large sections of the press. ‘I never thought it would be this hard to get out of the EU,’ lamented one man interviewed on TV last week. ‘Why do we need a transition period as long as two years?’ The UK government seems to be suffering from much the same kind of myopia – and they have far less excuse than the general public, because they should have taken the time to properly inform themselves.
The road ahead in the Brexit negotiations reads, ‘Danger!’ But the UK government seems to be ignoring the warning signs. Sometimes the Prime Minister seems more concerned to maintain unity within the Conservative party than to negotiate seriously with the EU. She and her ministers continue to produce platitudes and vague ideas, but no firm proposals. ‘We are waiting to see what the EU offers us,’ I have heard ministers say. But it is the UK who took the initiative to leave, so the onus is on the UK to say what it wants, as a starting point for negotiations.
Where are the British Christians in all this? Nowhere to be seen. Why? Because they are just as divided on this issue as the country as a whole. Opinion polls show that the near 50/50 split in the referendum is much the same today, and this split is reflected in the church, where there are a whole range of views. At one extreme are those who consider the European Union to be a work of God, initiated by men with a strong Christian faith, to bring peace and prosperity to Europe. At the other extreme are those who equate the EU with the harlot of Babylon or the beast and urge the UK to ‘Come out from among them and be separate’, so as not to be defiled. And there is everything in between. Christian leaders and Christian organisations are hesitant to openly express any opinion because they know that their members are so divided.
Where is it all going? There are now only 7 months left in which to come to an agreement, since the EU has said that it will take from October to get an agreement through its internal processes before March 2019 – and approval for whatever is agreed is far from a foregone conclusion. The closer we come to that deadline without tackling the key issues such as those that I have mentioned above, the more likely it is that the whole thing will end in tears.
Every day we come closer to October without meaningful proposals from the UK government, without a significant breakthrough in the negotiations, the chances of an agreed settlement diminish. Without such a settlement, there are only two alternatives: either the UK crashes out of the EU on 29 March 2019 with no agreement – which would delight many Brexiteers on the right of the Conservative party, but would be far more damaging than most people realise – or there is some cataclysmic event which causes a significant shift in public opinion, and the UK ends up remaining a member of the European Union. One of these two options is looking increasingly likely, so long as we continue on the present path.