Why is the UK government so stupid

Brexit, Orban and the European Summit : What's worse for the EU - Britain's farewell or Hungary's stay?

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The extended new edition of his book “A century is voted out (Hanser) was recently published. On Twitter at @fromTGA.

'Brexit means Brexit' - the mantra of former British Prime Minister Theresa May deserves a place in philosophy textbooks as the most meaningless sentence ever to contain the word 'mean'. But let's not fool ourselves that when we finally find out whether there is a minimal or no trade deal between the UK and the EU, we will know what Brexit means.

It will certainly take five years, probably even ten, before we can clearly define what the new relationship between the offshore islands and the continent will look like. By then, the EU may be a very different community than it is today, and the UK may no longer exist.

In a next referendum, which is likely to follow in the coming years, the Scots will decide whether they want to leave the 300-year-old union with England and join the European one again. If they vote for independence in spite of the economic difficulties that this entails, the UK will effectively cease to exist.

Every British politician who wants the Scots to stay with the British must therefore - as an alternative to independence - come up with a different, federal model of the British Union as soon as possible. So either the end of the UK or a new federal kingdom of Britain would be available to choose from.

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The road from the 2016 referendum to this hard Brexit is littered with broken promises - from Boris Johnson's article in the Daily Telegraph cheerfully claiming that "there will continue to be free trade and access to the internal market" to Trade Secretary Liam Fox , who said the free trade agreement with the European Union "should be one of the simplest in human history".

In a masterpiece of cognitive dissonance, the “Brexiteers” succeeded in advocating two irreconcilable ideas: on the one hand, "Europe" was a hideous Franco-German plot to sink England into a Napoleonic empire, but on the other hand the same new Napoleons - on Instruction from the German auto industry - would be obliged to grant the UK privileged, unhindered access to the internal market so that the British - as Boris Johnson likes to say - can have their cake and eat it at the same time.

The question now is whether there will be a dynamic of rapprochement and separation between Great Britain and the EU.

Any government other than the current populist UK government would prefer a softer Brexit. It could also be a conservative government, but only a more pragmatic and competent one, for example under the leadership of Rishi Sunak, the current finance minister.

And, of course, that would apply even more to a Labor government - or a Labor Party-led coalition government - under Keir Starmer. This prospect, as well as the logic of economic self-interest, suggests that after Brexit the UK will gradually move closer to the EU, sector by sector, topic by topic.

On the other hand, the tougher Brexit becomes, the more Britain will have to look for an alternative business model. As the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine shows, England and Wales also have strengths on their own: financial services, great universities, biotechnology, deep mind, alternative energies, creative industries.

The hope that the EU would be united without the annoying British is deceptive

The economy would be smaller after Brexit than without it, but over time it could develop a new, competitive profile. That alone indicates divergences. In addition, the bad blood and the mutual accusations surrounding a "no-deal" Brexit dispute should, if it comes to that, initially burden and hinder cooperation in areas such as foreign and security policy.

But the future after Brexit will depend just as much on developments across the English Channel. People in Germany, France or Italy rarely talk about Brexit, and not just because they are fed up. But also because the EU is facing two more enormous crises, which will certainly be discussed at the European summit this week.

The EU urgently needs to adopt its budget and its corona aid fund - a total of no less than 1.8 trillion euros - otherwise the post-crisis recovery will be difficult. In addition, the north-south tensions within the euro zone could become acute again.

But before it can be passed, the threatened veto of Hungary and Poland must be overcome. The two countries held the rest of the EU hostage in order to weaken the proposed rule of law mechanism, which seeks to make the distribution of funds subject to rule of law conditions.

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In the meantime there have even been voices that see Brexit as an opportunity for the EU because the remaining member states - freed from the annoying Anglo-Saxons - can then aim for further integration steps. But that's an illusion.

It took a five-day summit marathon that summer to agree on the budget and the corona rescue fund against the fierce resistance of the "thrifty four" (Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands), with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte taking on Margaret Thatcher in suit pants.

And what the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki are now doing to their EU partners makes the former British Prime Minister look like a fan of Europe. Yes, she shouted "I want my money back" but at least the UK has been a major net contributor to the European budget.

And after Thatcher had received her discount, she energetically pushed ahead with a central project of European integration: the internal market, whose "level playing field" - a very British metaphor for "a level playing field" - the EU is now demanding from Great Britain.

Hungary and Poland say: give us your money, we will do what we want with it!

Hungary and Poland, on the other hand, are large net recipients (Hungary, for example, could receive sums from the EU budget and the economic fund that together account for more than six percent of its GDP).

Nevertheless, the two countries refuse to accept some fairly minimal rule of law conditions, without which the EU will gradually cease to be a community of democracies and a common legal order.

Rather, the Hungarian and Polish leaders are telling German and Dutch taxpayers, “We will not allow you to make the much-needed transfers of money to southern Eurozone countries like Italy and Spain, both of which have been hit hard by Covid, unless you are allow us to continue using large amounts of your money without significant restrictions. "

And in Hungary, that means EU funds are being distributed to prop up Orbán's increasingly undemocratic regime, not to mention his family and friends.

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At the moment, this shameless extortion tour seems to be promising, since the German EU presidency is apparently ready to further weaken the rule of law mechanism.

Then the populist, xenophobic, nationalist government parties in Hungary and Poland can continue to do what they like, be generously paid for it by the German and Dutch taxpayers - and on top of that bite the hand that feeds them.

Fast forward to Hungexit or Polexit? Neither of them. Why should the two countries be so stupid? Johnson can talk about his cake, which he wants to have and eat, but Orbán does it instead of just talking about it.

No, the immediate threat to the EU is not that Hungary and Poland will follow Great Britain to the door, but that they will remain full members of the club - Hungstay and Polremain, so to speak - and continue to violate its most important rules. It is difficult to say what the greater threat to the future of the European Union is now: a democratic Britain that has left or an undemocratic Hungary that remains.

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