To put it mildly, the British political establishment did not cover itself in glory in the immediate aftermath of the momentous Brexit vote. I am re-reading Shakespeare’s histories to try to find the correct specific analogy that best describes what Michael Gove did to Boris Johnson, just as I am feverishly going over Kafka to find the best surreal short story to characterise the trials and tribulations of Jeremy Corbyn. It is easy to see why Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the situation as one in which “England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally, and economically.”
However, that is, beyond being wish-fulfilment analysis of the worst sort, utter rot. Has Rutte looked in the mirror lately? For it is the EU and not the UK that is in obvious absolute decline and is the big loser from the Brexit vote. This would seem to be analytically obvious, but I have learned through all this sorry process that things really do need to be spelled out in excruciating detail.
So let’s use Rutte’s own description of the UK, instead substituting the words “European Union” in his soundbite. Politically, the EU has collapsed. Its second largest economy and the country with the largest army has just bolted for the door, thoroughly discrediting the notion that Brussels is somehow the future. It is hard to think of a clearer act of political disparagement than this, mocking Brussels’s many pretensions.
Monetarily, the euro crisis is far from over, with southern Europe unhappily possessing depression-era levels of youth unemployment and real growth yet to return. Greece, Portugal, and Spain appear to be ungovernable – wholly incapable of embracing the structural reforms that are their only long-term hope of salvation – with Italy and even mighty France not far behind.
Worse still, the unresolved euro crisis has exposed a deep, unhealed north-south schism in the EU, with the debtor southern states permanently resenting the austerity-minded (for other people, that is) northern states, led by Germany.
Constitutionally, the EU is also a mess, a pushmi-pullyu sort of freakish creature, being neither a federal state nor merely a collection of countries. Given the multiple crises the EU finds itself in – be the issue the euro, refugees, or Brexit – such a lack of clarity is dangerous in terms of slowing down decision-making in a globalised era that sometimes calls for quick and decisive responses. All too often the EU produces slow and mushy policy outputs, lowest common denominators that at best manage, but never solve, Europe’s problems. This inability to master problems leads to decadence, revealing Brussels to be in an advanced stage of decline.
The EU’s economic collapse is perhaps its most obvious flaw. As Boris Johnson rightly put it, other than Antarctica there is not a continent in the world growing at a more woeful pace. If euroland grows at a meagre 2 per cent across the zone for a year ever again, I’ll eat my hat. Italy, a major player in the EU, incredibly still does not have as large an economy as it did before the Lehman crisis. France has shown itself utterly incapable of serious structural reform. Spain, after two tries, cannot even elect a government with majority support. Italy’s banks are dangerously teetering. All of these problems are systemic, none are easily solved.
Prime Minister Rutte is surely correct that the UK has not covered itself with glory after the Brexit vote. But he is missing the forest for the trees, as London, for all the political comic opera of the past few weeks, has just escaped the clutches of an economic and political zone not fit for purpose in the multipolar age. It is the EU, and not London, that is collapsing and fast.