The U.S. economy is booming and our trade skirmishes with other countries grind on, but let’s change our focus and look across the Atlantic at the head-on collision that appears to be shaping up between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
In a June 2016 referendum, British voters opted narrowly for withdrawal from the EU after 43 years of membership. “Brexit” is slated to occur just six months from now, on March 29 — unless all EU members agree to an extension of the deadline.
Whether or not you support Brexit, I think we all can agree that a smooth transition to life outside of the European group would be most beneficial for all parties.
Sadly, negotiations between the UK and EU appear to be heading toward the worst possible outcome — the UK “crashing” out of the EU without sufficient preparation to avoid major disruption to businesses and citizens on both sides of the English Channel.
I wrote in these pages months ago that resolving all the mind-numbing details related to Brexit would take months of intensive work and that completing the process within two years — the time period then available — would be very difficult.
Time has proved my concerns to be valid.
On trade issues alone — a central element of the impasse between the UK and EU — the UK began the process without any seasoned trade negotiators. Why? Because all international trade negotiations involving EU members are conducted by EU negotiators based in Brussels, leaving member states without this very specialized skill set.
Just as bad, British Prime Minister Theresa May is in a politically weak position domestically, with fractious elements of her own Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party clamoring for wildly different outcomes to the negotiations.
The latest attempt by May to navigate this difficult maze resulted in a firm rejection by her fellow EU leaders of an exit plan that would have preserved a range of important EU benefits for the UK without a corresponding UK commitment to preserve other elements of EU treaty law.
The result of all the uncertainty and of the increasing likelihood of a sudden rupture between the UK and EU has not been positive for Britain. Foreigners especially are steering clear.
Foreign investment into the UK — a big source of job creation, tax revenues, and economic growth — fell a sharp 38 percent in 2016 and another 10 percent last year. Moreover, a growing number of foreign corporations are fleeing the UK to set up shop on the continent.
UK businesses themselves face uncertain times ahead. Will their exports to Europe face delays at the border and new border taxes (tariffs)? With no clear rules in place, will they be able to import parts for their manufacturing operations or items to stock their retail shelves in a timely manner?
British hospitals and health clinics, meanwhile, are stockpiling pharmaceuticals to avoid a potential shortage of critical drugs in case shipments across the border are stymied.
While all of this drama across the Atlantic may seem far removed from Montana, it’s worth noting that the UK has been one of America’s staunchest allies and one of our biggest trade and investment partners, with substantial two-way flows of goods, services and investment.
A weakened and politically unstable United Kingdom will contribute to the growing divisions between Western allies that together have safeguarded the peace and helped build a strong Europe from the ashes of World War II.
As someone who values the strong alliances and vibrant economic ties between countries that have brought peace and prosperity to millions of citizens, I regret to see the almost nonchalant rejection by many people of the underpinnings of our postwar cooperation and comity.
It is much easier to break things down than to build them up.
The next few months will reveal to us whether the UK and EU can reach a mutually satisfactory divorce agreement, or whether this divorce will be messy and costly to all.
Note: At this time next month, I’ll be in Japan promoting the Japanese-language version of my book, “A Christian in the Land of the Gods,” about my great-grandfather’s mission work in a rapidly changing late 19th century Japan. Look for my next column in December.