By Owei Lakemfa
Tonight, the Old United Kingdom (U.K.) walks through the gates of divorce, 47 years after saying ‘I do’ to the European Union (E.U.). Feigning happiness that it is once again single and eligible, and in fact looking for multi partners, the U.K. plans a clock count down to the 23:00 GMT divorce hour, which will be projected on to No. 10 Downing Street, while subdued revelers are hosting a celebration in Parliament Square, where flagpoles will fly the union jack. Also, a commemorative Brexit 50p coin with the words: “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” is expected to be released.
These, however, will be a far cry from the huge celebrations, including candle light processions, that marked the marriage when the country signed the dotted lines in Brussels, vowing to hold and cherish the E.U. until death do them part. At that January 1, 1973 union, the U.K. had a huge bridal train, including representatives of its political spectrum, led by then Prime Minister Edward Heath, and supported by his predecessors, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.
This time, the U.K. is a less confident, divided and broken country with an uncertain future. Even after serving its divorce papers in 2016, triggering it off on March 29, 2017 and deciding to leave exactly two years later, the now less elegant U.K. showed a lot of reluctance to leave the matrimonial home for the ‘free market’, where it hopes to showcase its natural and acquired assets. Even before today, the U.K. had made flirtatious moves to the United States, its former colonies in Africa, and let it be known to its old lover, the E.U. that it still wants to maintain a warm filial relationship.
There were no pre-nuptial agreements, so despite today’s official divorce, the U.K. and E.U. still have a transition period of eleven months to work out the divorce details. These will be on trade and non-trade issues like education, data, security, intelligence, aviation, culture, research and fisheries.
In the post-divorce negotiations, the U.K. would hope for a free-tariff and quota-free links and the upholding of a no-checking-of-goods understanding with Ireland. With the divorce, the U.K.’s 73 members of the European Parliament will be sent home if they have not voluntarily returned, and it will, during the transition period, continue to obey all E.U. rules without having any say in their making.
However, the post-divorce negotiations will not witness the drama of parliamentary debates and votes that attended Brexit because the parliament’s involvement in approving the negotiations has been removed; its scrutiny is now reduced to ministerial briefs. There is the possibility of the negotiations dragging beyond this year, which will require U.K. asking for an extension. However, Boris Johnson has ruled this out. This gives room for a possible no-deal scenario.
There had been two catastrophic European wars styled as ‘The First World War’, which ran from 1914 to 1918 and ‘The Second World War”, from 1940 to 1945, in which Europe and its allies destroyed not just most of themselves, but also parts of the world. The idea arose that if Europe were to form a union, the likelihood of a Third World War would be highly reduced.
U.K.’s war-time prime minister, Winston Churchill in a September 19, 1946 speech at the University of Zurich, Switzerland told Europe: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”
To achieve peace, by 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community began a form of European Union. When after years of negotiations, the Treaty Of Rome to unite Europe was signed in 1957, U.K. opted out arguing that it would affect its relations with its Commonwealth countries and that in any case, it desired: a ‘one-world economic system’ with the pound as a central currency. So, six countries: Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg were left to sign what became the European Economic Community, later renamed the European Union.
Within four years, the U.K. changed its mind and decided to join the E.U. marriage, but was rejected. It was again rejected in 1967, principally by French President Charles de Gaulle, who vetoed it. He argued that the U.K. was not a good and fit person for the marriage and that it will not be faithful as it was in a romantic relationship with the United States, which was allegedly using the U.K. as a Trojan Horse to penetrate the E.U. However, when Georges Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle, France withdrew is objections and the U.K.-E.U. marriage was consummated.
The U.K. proved to be an unreliable, if not unfaithful partner. Within two years it was already contemplating a divorce; it put this to a 1975 referendum, but 67.2 per cent said it should remain in the marriage.
When on January 1, 1999 the E.U. adopted a single currency and exactly three years later, floated the Euro, the U.K. refused to be part of it. It decided to maintain its currency backed by its reserves. So it secured an opt-out.
Also, when the E.U. signed the Schengen Agreement on June 14, 1985, which abolished border controls between member states and introduced a single visa policy, the Schengen, effective from March 26, 1995, the U.K. opted out of this.
Even with the arrangements it had accepted, such as the free movement or migration of E.U. citizens, it began leaning towards discriminating against those from Eastern Europe.
While the E.U. tried to tolerate the U.K. and make the marriage work, even if it meant bending over backwards to accommodate it, the latter remained dissatisfied, even complaining about its financial contributions to the marriage.
Grumbling U.K. went for a second referendum in 2016, whether to remain or seek a divorce. This time, 51.9 per cent voted for a divorce. Then, uncertainty and self-doubt set in. The divorce, called Brexit, which had consumed two prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May, also threatened to consume their successor, Boris Johnson. But the U.K. decided to take the leap of fate with or without a negotiated exit.
So when tomorrow comes, the single parent U.K. will be facing a new future – one it did not really plan for but would have to live with. For the E.U., I am sure it has gotten tired of the divorce proceedings and its aftermath, the earlier it sorts out the details and moves on, the better. As for us, Africans, I think we should be smart enough to know that in the wake of its divorce, and search for new markets, new partners and places to exploit as it did in pre-colonial times, the U.K. has our continent fully in its sight.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.