Brexit: an irrational act hoping for a rational response?

david-davis-2Since the ‘Brexit is Brexit’ government was put into place last week by new Prime Minister Theresa May, there has been a fair bit of talk about how rational the EU will be in negotiating.  We heard much during the campaign about the bosses of BMW and Mercedes insisting to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel that they would need to continue to sell cars into the UK.  The new Brexit minister David Davis told the Independent this week that his negotiations about the residence rights of EU citizens in the UK would be ”based on the presumption that they [the EU] will be rational about their own citizens interest, which they will be”. 

This assumption of rationality is a nod back to Enlightenment values – the 18th century effort to challenge traditional systems of power, tradition and religion with logic and science.  At the time it was, ironically, a pan-European movement with British contributors (notably John Locke, David Hume and Mary Wollstonecraft ) alongside French and German writers including Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau.  From this basis, Adam Smith became a key founder of economics, still hugely influential today. 

So, of course we might assume that the EU will be rational in their negotiations.  There is one snag with this argument: the Brexit saga is, thus far at least, a blazing advertisement for the limits of rationality in politics. 

The Remain campaign bombarded voters with the predictions of economists, business people, academics and others that Brexit would be an economic shock, costing the British economy something between 1.5 and 3% of GDP.  There would be disruption and uncertainty, new stresses on the Union with potentially conflicting wishes from the UK nations.  Those coming to the UK’s shores from other EU states were shown to be helping and supporting the economy, not taking from it.  And yet, 52% of voters shunned their rational interests and decided instead to ‘take back control’. 

Sovereignty is a political, not a rational, choice.  In a modern, interconnected and interdependent world, all nations choose to share some elements of their self-determination with others in pursuit of better outcomes for their citizens.  Even the shunned Marxist North Korea is a member of the United Nations – it being better to be at the world’s top diplomatic table and abide by its rules than to be a total outcast.  

There is a question of costs and benefits, of course.  It seems that the UK is choosing to reduce GDP, to potentially shut off a valuable source of labour and growth, to jeopardise long-standing academic and trading relationships – for some as-yet-imaginary benefit of ‘not having to do what Brussels tells us’.  (The fact that we were also in Brussels, agreeing what to tell ourselves, is another piece of this Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass confusion, which must wait for another time.)

So, we await to see if our former European partners will respond rationally to Brexit.  Having given the UK either a new privileged status in Europe (as many across the channel would say) or insulted us with their ‘thin gruel’ (as the oleaginous Jacob Rees-Mogg would say), only to see it rejected in the strongest possible way, the EU 27 could be forgiven for setting aside their rationality in defence of their own political project, the single market.  David Davis, Boris Johnson and others have claimed that in the end, rationality will prevail and the EU will see the sense of breaking their own cherished rules to do the UK a favour.  In the current climate, with the EU wounded by Brexit and the UK in the grip of irrational jingoism, I’m not holding my breath. 

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