Fast and slow Brexit: the EU and Aesop's fable

By Harry Hagopian
October 7, 2016

The Aesopica is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and storyteller, who is believed to have lived in ancient Greece. One of my favourite stories is that of the tortoise and the hare who decide to race one day. The hare is so confident in his lead that he naps while the tortoise trudges along. But surprisingly, the slow and steady tortoise wins the race, since it is not always the swift who hold the advantage.

Some might ponder about the relevance of this story to our ongoing Brexit saga here in the UK. Well, it sprang to mind a few days ago when I learnt that the Prime Minister Theresa May had decided to trigger Article 50 – which starts the two-year countdown toward an agreement between the UK and the EU – before end-March 2017.

But do we have any more clarity on substance today than we did yesterday? After all, we had already been told that "Brexit means Brexit", just like parents tell their children that "bedtime means bedtime". However, I am afraid that I am not much clearer on the practical portent for us of this gigantic constitutional step we are embarking upon within the next six months – us, of course, being the men and women on the fabled Clapham omnibus.

So although my thoughts remain undecided, let me look at the way we are trying to decouple ourselves from the EU institutions that have been part of our reality since we went into the EEC 44 years ago.

* If I were to take the Prime Minister’s words at the Conservative Conference in Birmingham at face value, it seems quite clear to me that we are veering toward a hard Brexit as a strategic direction – a term, when disinvested of its sensationalist overtones – simply means that we will refuse to budge or compromise on the free movement of persons in return for remaining part of the tariff-free Single Market. In other words, we also would not emulate Norway or Switzerland or Liechtenstein but forge a novel relationship with the EU as a fully sovereign country So if this is indeed the mood music coming out of 10 Downing Street, does it mean – as some enterprises suggest – that we are gambling with our economy?

* If the Prime Minister prioritises immigration curbs over the single market, what will happen to businesses and investment? Will they slow down, as we lose our banking, passporting and equivalence rights? What about workers’ rights? What about our trading with one of the biggest markets worldwide?

* While High Court cases lite pendente in London – and now also in Northern Ireland – consider whether Parliament (which is sovereign) or the Prime Minister (by using the Royal Prerogative} will deploy Article 50, I am concerned at the hare-like haste – and more so the confident zeal – with which we are moving forward in our fervour to prove that we are a self-governing island.

* The stakes are very high and the level of grandstanding by 'the three Brexiteers' for popular or ideological purposes is not the way forward. I agree fully that we should abide by the wish of the 52 per cent in the referendum who were Leavers, but do we need to cut off our noses in order to to spite our faces?

* The Great Repeal Bill once enacted will scrap the European Communities Act 1972, devolve all EU-linked laws and transfer them into British law. In other words, Parliament will be able to remove or edit unwanted laws later, but Brexit for now will mean that up to 13,000 EU regulations will stop being Brussels-based and will become enshrined in UK law.

* So what happens next: do we then just rewrite each and every single regulation, or do we keep them and in the process defeat the purpose of the Bill by simply altering the labels but not the substance? 

* I also realise there are parliamentary elections in Germany and presidential elections in France in 2017. What sort of negotiations could be had when both those countries would be in an uncompromising mood in order to woo their own electorate? Is it in our interest or that of Brussels to trigger Article 50 now?

Back to the moral of Aesop’s fable. It would be helpful if our Government were to approach Brexit with wisdom, diligence and prudence, and not in a gung-ho manner as it pines for a nostalgic but non-globalised past.


See also: 'The Brexit gloves are off', by the same author:


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is - follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here:

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