This time, it’s different

Brexit has been kicked into almost complete irrelevance by the Covid-19 pandemic. It surprises me that UK-EU negotiations on the future relationship are reportedly still under way. But beyond that, the posited economic and related damage from Brexit per se stands to be dwarfed by the breadth and depth of the pandemic hit, writes ‘Sillerton Hill’.

 In ‘100 days’, it’s been revealed that very little is left unscathed when the wheels of commerce and economic activity grind to a halt. You can take a chalk duster to the present blackboard of growth, business large and small, jobs, savings, wealth, prospects, ambitions, health and social welfare, and wipe much of it clean. When the talk is of the deepest slump since the 1930s depression and maybe the upending of capitalism as we’ve known it, then maybe we need to think of re-designing for the future the UK ship we sail on before yearning for the EU convoy we have just departed. 

Because it’s no better in Europe. Arguably, the situation in the EU is much more threatening. Only the really blinkered can fail to sense that. Recently, Ursula von der Leyen et al have heralded a €500bn rescue package eventually agreed by EU finance ministers as a belated start to easing the dramatic slump impacting the bloc. Job done? Don’t think so. The European Central Bank (ECB) thinks it could take up to €1.5tn to arrest then reverse the crisis. The ECB is not renowned for profligacy. What’s the sticking point? In the words of a diplomat from one of the big bloc members: “Solidarity went out the window with the first coronavirus victim”. 

As Caesar said of Gaul, Europe is divided into three parts. The big fissure, dormant since the last Eurozone crisis (2011 – 12), separates the rich and fiscally conservative north-west from the more vulnerable, fiscally burdened likes of Italy and Spain in the south. The Eurozone shares a common currency, but it doesn’t share national debt burdens. The UK and the US are close to printing money now to fund their economic support packages. The EU has shied away from that. Now it can’t agree on issuing, then guaranteeing the repayment, of debt issued in the Union’s name, so that the better-off parts of the EU help pay for the less well-off parts. (Think of London-generated tax receipts helping fund other parts of public spending in the UK.)

That is a fundamental flaw in the system that is back to haunt Europe, and it won’t be an easy fix. (Debt sharing is a massive bite to swallow.) It has the potential to choke and fracture the EU. It’s a risk the UK is well clear of but one that Scotland should ponder very carefully in its own political ambitions. 

The other fissure lies in the east, and with the continued power grab in Hungary by Prime Minister Orban’s Fidesz party, a departure which now poses a direct challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law in that country and, by inference, to those same core values at the core of the European Union. How is that going to play out? (Orbán’s emergency law allowing him to rule by decree indefinitely has been denounced by MEPs while the centre-right EPP dithers about expelling Fidesz and the EU as a whole cannot unilaterally expel a country…)

The road to full recovery from the pandemic will be long, uncertain and ‘different’ in ways not fully imagined. The focus should be on re-building our own backyard. If we are going to think of Europe, then let’s forget union for now and concentrate on the core European Movement objective of unity – unity in endeavour, in values, in practical expressions of friendship, community and support. Let’s put any imperative of re-binding political union to one side, at the UK level and at the Scottish level. Let’s fix first that which has gone suddenly, dramatically, wrong. 

Image of Mario Centeno, Eurogroup president, via Wikimedia Commons