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The unstructured narrative of Brexit

by Raluca Dorofte , Comparative Literature graduate from the University of Bucharest

Ever since Britons have voted in favour of leaving the European Union, uncertainty and doubt seem to have taken over the political environment in the United Kingdom. This prevailing atmosphere has inevitably infiltrated the private life of citizens as well. “Confusion” is one frequently used word when talking about Brexit and, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, it means “a situation in which people do not understand what is happening, what they should do or who someone or something is”. Confusion is the kind of euphemistic feeling that comes into being in order to camouflage a much more unpleasant emotion, such as anger or fear, both perfectly understandable, given the ambiguous climate created by Brexit – anger, because no one actually knows what is going to happen and when or if the UK is going to leave the EU and fear, because the consequences of Brexit are already affecting the economy and the day-to-day life of citizens, not to mention the chaotic aftermath that a possible no-deal scenario could bring about.  

Great Britain is known for profound feelings of pride towards their own nation, with a focus on valuing and perpetuating traditions, as well as an innate need for control, which can be easily explained if one just recalls its history – the British Empire and the many foreign territories it colonized and ruled over. This could explain why the adherence to a union which entails a common set of rules and regulations has been particularly problematic for the UK. Each of the 28 member states of the European Union has to renounce a part of their sovereignty as independent countries and work towards shared goals, such as the protection of the environment, defending human rights or the promotion of trade. However, Britons did not see the EU in a particularly good light, but rather as a source of uncontrolled immigration coming from an expensive and subjugating organization, attitude that materialized into the results of the 2016 Referendum, when 51.89% voted in favour of leaving the European Union. The result has taken everyone aback. Slowly but surely confusion started to arise, the first sign of turbulence being the resignation of David Cameron.

European Flag missing one of its stars

Brexit should have happened this year on March 29th, two years after Theresa May, the Prime Minister who followed Cameron, triggered the formal process to withdraw from the European Union, known as Article 50. The Prime Minister at the time negotiated a deal which was supposed to ensure a smooth exit, as well as a transition period to help the UK leave the bloc without additional problems. Nonetheless, her deal was rejected three times in Parliament and consequently Brexit was delayed twice already.

In the view of many Conservative MPs, as well as the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), the fundamental issue with May’s deal was the Backstop. Originally a baseball term, the Backstop concerns the future of the Irish border after Brexit, as the line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be the only land border between the UK and the EU. This issue is crucial for the future of trade, as a successful Brexit would mean that checks would have to be performed at the border. Still, no one really wants any inspections to happen, as it would further complicate the situation, given the fact that Northern Ireland was dominated by bloodshed and conflict for 30 years. Therefore, the Backstop is a legal guarantee that there will be no hard border whatsoever. This tool shall come into effect only if the UK and the EU can’t agree upon a future trade deal after Brexit. This means that the EU laws for trade would automatically apply to the UK, and Northern Ireland would be even more closely tied to these rules than the rest of the country. The Backstop was so frowned upon because it would prevent the UK from doing its own trade deals around the world and because it does not provide an exit clause, without the UK having to obtain permission from the EU.

In an article that appeared in The New Yorker, Sam Knight elegantly captures the apparent folly of this whole process: “May’s backstop was her undoing. Everyone found a reason to hate it. E.U. officials described it as a “swimming pool” of rules, in which Britain would be partially submerged and Northern Ireland would be in the deep end. For Remainers, the arrangement captured the pointlessness of Brexit. The country would continue to obey E.U. laws, but without having a say in their formulation.”[1]

Even though the EU claims that if the Backstop comes into effect, it would only be temporary, the ambiguity surrounding the time frame for which it should be active determined MPs to vote against May’s deal, bringing about Theresa May’s resignation.

Flags of the European Union and the United Kingdom

In July 2019, Boris Johnson took over the position of Prime Minister and from his duty’s very beginning he made a firm promise to deliver Brexit by any means, claiming that he is going to comply to the will of the people who voted “leave” back in June 2016.

As I have mentioned above, a prime argument for leaving the bloc is that it will liberate the UK from the EU’s overwhelming set of rules. Sam Knight points that “since Brexit was dreamed up by the right wing of the Conservative Party, it is generally assumed that part of the goal is to become a low-tax, small-state competitor to mainland Europe—a nirvana sometimes referred to as <Singapore-on-Thames.>” Yet, this does not align with the expectations of the citizens who voted ‘leave’ and who thought that Brexit would better the public services and would ensure a more responsive government who does not have to obey foreign regulations. Boris Johnson has not yet made any attempts to straighten these contradictory desires.[2]

On October 17th it has been announced that a revised deal had been implemented, a deal that replaces the Backstop with new custom agreements which would allow the UK to set its own trade deals. Apart from this difference, the rest of the withdrawal agreement remains almost unchanged. Two days later, Mr. Johnson tried to get his deal through Parliament, but his attempt did not succeed and the PM had to ask for another Brexit delay in order to avoid a no- deal ‘divorce’.

Considering all these twists and turns, Brexit seems to have taken the form of a postmodernist piece of literature: it is the metamorphosis of a political issue into an unstructured narrative divided in unequal chapters by delays of the deadline. Neither the people in power, nor the regular citizens know what to expect next. Millions of people follow this story with awe, eager to know how it unravels and what the end will be. The political games appear almost quixotic and Brexit could easily be assimilated into the realm of fiction. Confusion remains a constant in the unfolding plot of Brexit. A new referendum may sound like a legitimate solution, however, many are unsure of the efficacy of such a plan. Between the other two popular scenarios, leaving with a deal or without a deal, the former remains the main source of anxiety for Britons and EU citizens living in the UK alike, as it would negatively interfere in all areas of life: from food supply to healthcare, from transport to bureaucracy and many more, issues that will be discussed in more detail in the following article.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

Sources:


[1] Sam Knight, How Brexit Will End, November 4 2019 Issue, The New Yorker, published on 25 October 2019, last accessed 26 October 2019

[2] Idem.

NATO and Hybrid Warfare

by Marie Gibrat, represented the UK in the NATO North Atlantic Council, at BEF 2015

“In preparation for BEF 2015, the chairs of the NATO simulation requested participants to write an essay on hybrid warfare and the position of their country. The essays were entered into our committee competition, and we are happy to present our winner!” – Marian Fritz

Clausewitz stated “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions and its own peculiar preconceptions”.

Definition of hybrid warfare

Hybrid warfare can be defined as the use of a combination of conventional and irregular methods such as military operations, cyber-attacks, propaganda, and terrorist acts. It is composed of an interconnected group of state and non-states actors pursuing overlapping goals where the social and political context is complex and the state is weak.

Due to the growing proliferation of non-state actors, information technology and advanced weapons system, it has renewed.

 Photograph © Philipp Mehl 2015

Nowadays hybrid warfare involves four threats: traditional, irregular, catastrophic terrorism and disruptive which exploit technology to counteract military superiority. The environmental context in hybrid warfare is one of the chief characteristics of this type of war. Hybrid war takes place on three distinct battlefields: the conventional battlefield, the indigenous population and the international community.

The lack of flexibility and adaptability within conventional militaries explains difficulties to defeat hybrid threats. In order to balance the latter one need to focus on the overall environment, not simply on the enemy. Armies should have in mind an operational approach with a holistic understanding of the environment. They should think on the conflict termination with a respect to the political and social grievances instead of focusing on a purely military-security end-state.

Besides operational shock i.e. attack the coherent unity of the hybrid threat as a system and dislocation i.e. the art of rendering the enemy’s strength irrelevant should be used simultaneously.

Hybrid warfare and NATO

NATO is a military alliance that will never embrace the full spectrum of challenges embodied in hybrid warfare. The current NATO deterrence policy for hybrid warfare is based on a rapid military response. However the latter has three main limits. A quick decision from member states is difficult to reach. Hard power is not sufficient. A military response alone is not credible.

Nevertheless, facing the current Russian threat, NATO considers it a necessity to develop a set of tools in order to deter hybrid warfare. Russia has risen its military budget and has announced an ambitious military modernization. Informational war, propaganda and cyber-attacks are already taking place in Eastern Europe, especially in Baltic States. General Sir Adrian Bradshaw said that Putin could use “hybrid warfare to seize former Baltic States”.

Hence hybrid warfare constitutes a far-reaching institutional challenge for NATO. A solution would be to increase cooperation with the European Union. By intensifying consultations and by engaging in joint planning, NATO and the EU would be a solid counterweight to hybrid threats.

Moreover, NATO needs to be present during the first step of hybrid warfare and even before. Prevention represents the best possible means of countering hybrid warfare since irregular threats are far more difficult to manage once they become an over attempt at destabilization. That is why NATO encourages the Security Sector Reform. The latter aims at strengthening a state’s resilience of their security sectors, while embracing transparency and accountability.

Lastly, NATO has developed a refreshed system of warnings to identify threats such as cyber-attacks, subversion and hostile propaganda.

The UK and Hybrid warfare

Military chiefs have warned that Britain has entered a new Cold War with Russia. Russia military planes, ships and submarines have made at least 17 incursions close to the UK since the start of 2014. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the Russian aggression poses “as great a threat to Europe as the Islamic State”. Michael Fallon wants to deliver the strongest possible message to Putin and asserts the Alliance will be strong, resolute and will prevail. The Defence Secretary warned of the threat to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia posed by Russia and claimed Putin was continuing to test the UK and NATO.

Nevertheless some military chiefs said the UK could not cope in case of a Russian attack because of cuts in the UK defence budget. Moreover, dealing with these hybrid threats requires much more investment in cyber, in strategic communications and in intelligence because these are not conventional threats.

Notwithstanding the fact that the UK defence is one of the most advanced in the world, it cannot fight alone against hybrid warfare. The UK will need NATO and the USA to counterweight any hybrid threat.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.