Reflecting on the depressing economic outlook facing this country and many parts of the world, I am reminded of a phrase by PG Wodehouse Much obliged, Jeeves.
The narrator – that Boris Johnson-like figure, Bertie Wooster – sinks back into his chair, his face buried in his hands. “It’s always my policy to look on the bright side,” he says, “but to do that, you have to have a bright side to look at…”
Well, in my opinion, the result of the French presidential election last weekend offers a glimpse of the bright side. Concerns about the rise of the far right were well aired, and there were many comments about the fractured nature of French politics and the mountain of problems facing a re-elected Emmanuel Macron, who, it takes hope, has learned from its past mistakes.
But reading much of the commentary, a space visitor could be forgiven for concluding that Macron had in fact lost the election, instead of winning by a bigger margin than expected. As Francisco, one of the sentries, says in the opening scene of Hamlet: “For this relief thank you very much.”
Although Madame Le Pen softened her anti-European stance for electoral reasons, much was at stake. After Brexit, there had been a lot of speculation about Frexit. And although the idea of founding and pivotal member France leaving the EU was formally dropped, it was obvious that Le Pen’s program would have been close to leaving the EU except in name.
As more and more citizens of this country are realizing, leaving the EU is not such a good idea. Like other economies, this country suffers inevitable and detrimental losses of national – and therefore individual – income due to a sharp deterioration in what economists call the terms of trade. This is the ratio of export prices to import prices, which reflects the sharp increase in the cost of imported energy, grain and other essentials following the invasion of the ‘Ukraine.
On top of that we have Brexit; think tank UK in a Changing Europe calculates that the trade barriers we have imposed on ourselves in the madness of leaving the EU have directly increased food prices in this country by 6%. Meanwhile, thanks to the daunting task of coping with all the bureaucracy resulting from Brexit, the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics finds that business relationships between UK and EU businesses have shrunk by a third since introduction of the EU-UK trade deal in January 2021. This largely reflects the blows to small and medium-sized businesses, which are supposed to be the engine of the entrepreneurial economy this blind government is supposed to aspire to.
Moreover, after seeing the difference between the promise and the reality of Brexit, the public seems to have seriously reconsidered. Campaign group European Movement UK recently conducted a poll which suggests, in the words of its chairman, Lord Adonis, that 98% “do not want to leave the EU as a whole”.
The expression “in its entirety” obviously leaves room for argument. There was a lot of discussion among those who were remaining about the type of relationship that can be developed with our former partners. But do we really have to go back to the 1950s, when alternative relationships were experimented with as surrogates until it became clear that the only thing that made sense was to apply for proper membership?
I was surprised to see my colleague, the esteemed Rafael Behr, dismiss those who wish to join the EU as “just a fanatical minority”. I can tell him that in my experience, there are a growing number of these “fanatics” around, and they are hardly a minority. And I was particularly struck by novelist Julian Barnes’ remark, when in a recent interview he firmly described himself as a “Rejoiner”, not a Remainer.
Back to President Macron. He thinks Brexit is crazy and would surely be in favor of acknowledging the UK’s historic mistake and inviting us back. The Ukrainian crisis certainly underlines the importance of his vision of a stronger and more united Europe.
It would help if the Tory party came to their senses, ousted Johnson and didn’t replace him with another Brexiter – or at least choose a former Brexiter who had seen the error of his ways. In guys and dollsthe set sings, “But the passengers they knew right from wrong / For the people all said” – to Nicely-Nicely Johnson – “Sit down, sit down, you rock the boat.”
In the case of the Johnson we’ve suffered for too long, surely it’s time to throw him overboard.