Two weeks in London—watching the British Brexit fiasco and the French meltdown—led to the realization that Europe really is as screwed up as the good old US of A.
Some takeaways from our visit:
* • British Prime Minister Teresa May is no Nancy Pelosi—even though May managed, for now, to survive a “no-confidence” vote initiated by her own party in response to her bumbling handling of the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union .
Her “deal” to exit the EU with a smooth transition was met with widespread resistance, from both Brexit supporters and opponents; she was forced to cancel a parliamentary vote on the Brexit agreement and try to cobble together an alternative.
Now the vote in Parliament is scheduled for the week of January 14, but no new deal has been negotiated and there is no real evidence that May has the votes to prevail.
Unlike Pelosi, who is a master vote-counter and inside player in the legislative process, May waited too long to attempt to rally her troops and wasted time making speeches out in the hustings to rev up public opinion (a la the Trump political playbook), instead of hanging in at Westminster, lobbying Members of Parliament, who are the ones who must cast the votes on May’s deal. While Pelosi was adroitly securing the votes needed to lock up the House Speakership, May was flailing.
* • The split in Britain over Brexit mirrors the partisan divisions in the US. London, urban and suburban areas, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU, just as urban and suburban areas, the West and East Coasts voted against Trump–and continue to be true Blue. The Brexit support comes from small towns, more rural, and less prosperous areas of the UK. Britain remains deeply divided and, whatever happens, large chunks of the citizenry are likely to be bitterly unhappy.
In Parliament, and in the British electorate, there now appear to be only two parties—“Leave” and “Remain.” Just as, one could argue, the U.S. electorate has largely split into the “Trump Party” and the “Anti-Trump Party.”
* • The British parties are in disarray. On Brexit, party discipline is out the window. The Conservatives are split down the middle on May’s “deal.” May foolishly called an early election in 2017 and lost her Tory majority in Parliament, forcing her to form a minority coalition government. The Labour Party is now led by socialist Jeremy Corbyn (aka the British Bernie Sanders). Labour, where the ultra-left unionists now hold the reins, also has no firm grip on what to do about Brexit’s future.
* • Immigration is the underlying issue driving much of the Brexit debate. Under the EU, Europeans can move about easily within the Union and take jobs in any EU country. Many Brits are put off by eastern Europeans migrating to the UK to flow into the British workforce. Sound familiar?
The biggest sticking points in deliberations over the May “deal” are “freedom of movement” and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In a recent Tweet May reiterated—for the umpteenth time–her insistence that “[t]his deal ends free movement, and protects jobs, security and our union. It brings back control of our money, laws and borders.” (Oh, yes…the P.M. is into tweeting, too.) But it’s proving near to impossible to accommodate the desire to maintain the free flow of people and goods seamlessly between the two Irelands, without diluting Britain’s control of its own borders. In essence, the so-called “hard border” is the equivalent of President Trump’s “wall”– a way to obstruct immigrants from slipping into the UK through a porous boundary.
* • The prospect of a “hard Brexit”—leaving the EU cold turkey on March 29, without a transition plan—threatens to upend the British economy (businesses are angst-ridden) and throw it into a deep recession. (California has already surpassed the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy.)
The pound has floundered considerably. With much panic setting in, as the March 29 deadline approaches there is talk of another Brexit referendum with the prospect of more division and a lot of unhappy losers, whichever way it would go.
* • Meanwhile, across the Channel, French President Emmanuel Macron faced a popular uprising, triggered by proposed increases in fuel taxes. Thousands of “Yellow Vest” protestors (wearing the bright yellow jackets all drivers in France are legally required to stow in their cars) took to the streets and chaos ensued. Macron offered concessions to protestors in the form of a package of tax and minimum wage measures for low-income workers , but “blinking” has only served to weaken his position.
* • President Macron is finding it difficult to govern from the center and domestic upheaval has been eroding his international standing, just when he seemed poised to position himself as the West’s adult supervision–with Prime Minister May under water, German Chancellor Angela Merkel fading from the scene and President Donald Trump abdicating his and the United States’ leadership position in the world.
* • In Britain and on the Continent, President Trump is viewed with distain and puzzlement. ( After all, while she was the State Department’s spokesperson, Trump’s nominee for U.N. Ambassador citied D-Day as evidence of the U.S’s “very strong relationship with the government of Germany.” )
Trump’s few European admirers are the Continent’s anti-immigration zealots.
* • Instability and dysfunction seem to be the order—or is it disorder?–of the day among Western democracies. In the U.S., it may be possible to resolve some of the biggest problems through the electoral process. For Britain, France and the rest of Europe, there doesn’t seem to be a clear path to normalcy.
Or it may be that populism and nationalism are “the new normal.”