In big week for Brexit, battle deepens over the costs of 'opting out'

Today we launch Patterns, a biweekly column that will look at the points of connection in what often seems like a chaotic world. Our first target: the difficult bid to reshape Britain's relationship with the European Union.

(Stefan Rousseau/AP
In London on Monday, European Commission negotiator Michel Barnier, left, warned Brexit Secretary David Davis that leaving the customs union will lead to barriers to trade.

When I started as a foreign correspondent in the late 1970s, it never occurred to me that the discipline I’d most need to call on four decades later wouldn’t be politics or economics. Instead, it’s seismology. More than at any time since World War II, the world’s tectonic plates are shifting. With a series of major jolts to the established order, and aftershocks in nearly every corner of the globe, the earth is moving beneath our feet.

The most obvious example, for Americans, has been the ascendancy of Donald Trump. But that’s only the latest. In one way or another, almost all of them can be traced back to a tremor of a different sort, on a chilly November evening that I was privileged to witness nearly three decades ago. Because I’d been the Monitor’s correspondent in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, it felt even more deeply moving to watch as the combination of a confusing news conference by an East German spokesman and raw people power toppled the Berlin Wall.

Though the fall of the wall, and former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR, were obviously going to have huge geopolitical implications, the overriding sense at the time was optimism that our world might be on the way to getting freer, more prosperous, and more unified. All that could still happen. But a combination of factors – not least the dizzying pace of technological change, and the emergence of a global economy with enormous benefits and painful dislocations – seems to have pointed us in a different direction.

Starting today, on alternate Mondays, we’ll look behind the headlines for the patterns and connections in what often looks like an unstable and disconnected world. If that sounds familiar to more seasoned members of the Monitor family, that’s because it was the approach pioneered by Joseph C. Harsch, one of the Monitor’s, and journalism’s, most insightful observers of world affairs throughout the cold war years. Now, the system of post-World War II international relations, and the institutions that underpinned it, are creaking. So, too, are the domestic political establishments in a range of countries. Joe Harsch’s determination to look beyond the ostensible chaos around us remains particularly relevant today.

This week, for instance, will mark an important stage in determining the future of Britain, America’s closest European ally, in the aftermath of its own political earthquake. The roots of Brexit – Britain’s move to end decades-old membership of the European Union – lie in a decision by then-Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a national referendum in June 2016. As the last in a long line of Conservative Party leaders to face incessant parliamentary pressure from its strident, anti-EU minority, he hoped to lance the boil. He expected to win, not just out of confidence in his own abilities as an orator and politician, but by rational argument. Whatever the emotional appeal of the leavers’ argument – essentially to “make Great Britain great again” – he couldn’t imagine a majority would want to cut ties with a single European market of half a billion people, with which Britain does most of its trade.

He was wrong. And the daunting complexity of the vote to separate has become clearer with each passing month. The referendum posed a simple yes-or-no choice, inviting voters to assume the details would take care of themselves. Many of those who voted to leave, moreover, seemed to be acting on a basic urge to strike out at Britain’s political establishment. Such was the atmosphere that no matter the referendum issue – even an end to double-parking on alternate Saturdays – the “no” camp would probably have prevailed.

The question facing Mr. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has been how to make Brexit work. Ahead of meetings this week with key cabinet colleagues to agree on a negotiating position, the reality remains that a clean break with the EU will mean significant economic pain. With a deadline this autumn to come up with a transitional arrangement, ahead of a final Brexit in 2021, not just business leaders but many of Prime Minister May’s own parliamentarians favor a “soft Brexit” that would limit EU immigration while still retaining trade terms with the EU that are as beneficial as possible.

That will be challenging enough, since any agreement needs ratification by the remaining 27 EU members. And domestically, for her party’s Brexit ideologues, any “soft” approach would represent a betrayal of the referendum result.

At a time when President Trump is extolling “America First” – and rival powers like China and Russia are acting more assertively to project their national interests beyond their borders – May’s conundrum acts as a timely reminder: No matter how frustrating it can be for individual countries to deal with the wider world, the notion of opting out, however alluring it can be made to appear, carries challenges of its own.

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