By Subhash Chopra
Britain’s Brexit debate gets muddier by the day with a fresh intervention by prime ministerial hopeful leader Boris Johnson calling for a short, sharp exit from the EU, the prospect of a ‘B team’ membership for the UK in a changing EU looks a serious possibility. Foreign Secretary Johnson’s new bombshell comes in an interview in the Sun newspaper just before the start of party’s annual conference in Manchester.
The B team membership possibility has been dangled before Britain by Emmanuel Macron, the young President of France, who has suggested that there could be a place for Britain in a reformed multi-speed EU. Such a likelihood would be possible not today or tomorrow but ‘in a few years.’ A ‘two- speed’ EU has been long in discussion but Macron seems to have given it a “multi-speed” twist, which could offer the UK a place in the outer periphery, as to countries like Bulgaria, Macedonia and others waiting and aspiring for EU membership far from any room in the core Euro Zone 19 or even the post-Brexit EU 27.
Macron’s idea which came in his speech at Sorbonne University in Paris last week has been adequately reported in the British press but, curiously enough, without much comment. He had made a similar suggestion back in May this year when he said that Britain could row back on its referendum decision to quit the 28-member bloc.
“Of course, the door is always open as long as the negotiations on Brexit have not finished.” But he had also warned that once the negotiations started, “it will be more and more difficult to go backwards.”
But as things stand, the EU clock, in the words of the Dutch oreign minister Bert Koenders, is ticking. “Big Ben may be still for renovation, but in Europe time ticks on.” The UK is still “day-dreaming.”
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier’s reaction has been even louder when he said after four rounds of talks there had been little progress so far and the negotiations could be deadlocked for months unless the UK agreed to honour its divorce Bill and other commitments.
Many EU leaders, particularly Macron who is banking upon the cooperation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are keen on revamping EU as a much more integrated bloc. Macron’s proposals for a post-Brexit shake-up include plans to give the 19-member Eurozone a finance minister, parliament, a common defence budget and an efficiency driven much smaller European Commission. His idea of “re-foundation” of EU even includes a common EU anthem — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
In sharp contrast to a spirit of solidarity in EU, Britain is witnessing a boom of opposing noises, with foreign secretary Boris Johnson leading his own band. An ardent friend of India, he is sometimes given to making costly gaffes. A few weeks ago he went to a gurdwara in Southall seeking to strengthen Indo-British relations, including the promotion of sale of Scotch whisky to India. He was unaware of the fact that though the Indians liked whisky, the gurdwara was just the wrong platform for the purpose!
A much costlier gaffe he made was on a visit in January to a pagoda in Myanmar where he recited a few verses from arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Road to Mandalay”, including the lines “The temple bells they say, Come you back, you British soldier, Come you back to Mandalay.” The poem gloats over a kind of reverse nostalgia – imagined on behalf of a native Burmese girl asking the coloniser soldier sahib to come back to rule!
While performing a ritual of pouring water on a golden statue, Johnson called it “a very big guinea pig.” The British ambassador to Mayanmar, Andrew Patrick, who accompanied him managed to stop Johnson after some interruptions, but not before the damage was done. Britain’s television Channel 4, which managed to capture the footage, has decided to show it.
Johnson’s diplomatic blunder has been seized upon, among others by Labour MP Roshanara Ali, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Mayanmar. Ms Ali, who is of Bangladeshi origin, said: “I can think of a long list of reasons why Boris Johnson isn’t fit to be prime minister. This can be added to that.”
Tailpiece: Despite all the talk of doom and gloom, Britain is enjoying a “golden age” of tourism, according to the UK Hilton Hotels boss Steve Cassidy, who revealed plans to build 34 new hotels across the country over the next two years.
(Subhash Chopra is a freelance journalist and author of ‘India and Britannia – an abiding affair,’ and other writings.)