Allan Little on Brexit and Populism in Europe

Allan Little (right) addressing LAWAC members at a Global Cafe Breakfast.

The British public is beginning to swing against the decision to leave the EU, as decided in the July 2016 Brexit referendum, but veteran BBC correspondent Allan Little predicted that because of Britain’s political predicament there will be no official reconsideration and Brexit will happen next year. “It’s going ahead, and it will be a hard Brexit,” he said, suggesting that the hope of maintaining some favorable trade deals will not be met. Speaking to a LAWAC Global Café Breakfast meeting on March 14, Little said that opinion polls are now indicating that a majority of the British public is now in favor of a second referendum – a “do-over” – and that among citizens under 50 there would be a substantial majority to remain in the EU if another vote were taken.

Little said that the main obstacle to a “do-over” is British parliament because since the referendum there has been a general election and politicians “are pledged” to follow through on Brexit. “Democracy matters!” he said. But seen from a distance, Little said that in the last 20 months people know what they voted against – open borders, overreach of Brussels-based EU bureaucrats, submission to European courts – “but they don’t know what they voted for.” British Prime Minister Theresa May has a group of 40-50 Tory MPs who are “committed Brexiteers”, while others are less in favor or, at most, want a “soft”, managed Brexit. This means she has been forced to spend much of her energy negotiating within her own party and hasn’t been negotiating enough with the rest of Europe.

“The government wants a managed divergence,” said Little, under which some sectors of the economy, like the pharmaceuticals industry, would essentially remain in the EU, while other sectors would completely withdraw and a third group would be half in and half out. “But the EU has said this is like having your cake and eating it, and they won’t allow it,” said Little. For Brussels and the other EU members, the integrity of the European Union institutions is seen as more important than trade with the UK. “They are saying ‘we can take the hit’,” said Little.

Little said the British had always held an attitude to Europe of separateness and superiority – he quoted Margaret Thatcher who said that historically Britain’s problems all came from across the Channel and its solutions came from across the Atlantic. “Brits have always been the reluctant Europeans.” The same does not apply to Scotland, where 62% of the population voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum. “The Brexit bus stopped at the Scottish border,” said Little, who predicts that in the longer term Brexit will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Scotland had its own independence referendum on independence from the UK in 2014 which was voted down 55% to 44%. Little said there will be no immediate attempt to have a second vote but said “the demographics are clear – the younger you are the more you look towards Europe.” With a population of 5 million people, Scotland can look across the North Sea to Denmark with a similar population and say “That looks pretty good!”

Still one of the biggest problems facing Britain’s Brexit negotiations is the potential downside to Ireland, particularly if the British are forced to put up a hard border again around Northern Ireland. “That is complicated and challenging for May,” said Little. He pointed out that the majority of other European states are on Dublin’s side on that issue and do not want to see a hard border reestablished, which would contravene the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement and could spark a renewal of armed conflict between sectarian groups. On the broader European scene, Little said that the growth of nationalist, populist politics was increasingly concerning, particularly in Poland and Hungary, both of whom “are in clear breach of the obligations they took on when they joined the EU in 2004”. Both countries have seen attacks on the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary and the basic principles of democracy. “Populism uses a democratic majority to systematically close down all alternative voices.”

Europe, he said, is now a multi-speed system, with economies in the north doing much better than those in the south. The foundational mistake, according to Little, was the deal that was done with Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the Germans would be allowed to reunify, but the cost was abandoning the Deutschmark and accepting the Euro as the new currency. That has meant that all of southern Europe is now trapped in German monetary discipline for which they are not suited. “The future of Greece is now decided in Germany, so even as the Greeks vote, they cannot change the system.” This is damaging to democracy and leads to populism, said Little.