Greenstick Fracture

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

When I was about seven years old I broke my lower left arm. I fell from a door frame and landed on it. I remember my arm being bent at a very odd angle and in the wrong place. It transpired that, as a result of my youth, that I had suffered a greenstick fracture, rather than a clean break to my arm. That is, the bones were broken but not completely: parts of each bone remained joined.

I have been reminded of the phrase ‘greenstick fracture’ in recent days as the story of Brexit has lurched from tragic-comic slapstick to surreal farce  and as Parliament and Prime Minister have tussled over the issue of a ‘No-Deal Brexit’. I admit to being a little unclear as to Boris Johnson’s real intentions here. On the one hand I have heard his assurances that No-Deal is simply a bargaining chip that he doesn’t really want to play and that he is straining every sinew to avoid playing it by striking a deal with the other 27 members of the EU. On the other hand I have an inbuilt resistance to believing the word of someone who has demonstrated a near-pathological disregard for the truth. 

Whatever the case, I am more disturbed by the voices I hear that suggest a No-Deal Brexit is, somehow, desirable. Nigel Farage has described it as ‘the only acceptable’ form of Brexit. Others have insisted that this is what the electorate actually voted for in 2016. Among these siren voices the suggestion goes that it would be a ‘clean break’ from the European Union. That the confusion and uncertainty of the last few years would be over. The clouds would part and the sunlit uplands of post-Brexit Britain would become clear.

This idea is a development of Theresa May’s grave and determined assertion that “Brexit means  Brexit”, as if some might imagine it meant ‘Begonia’. In a similar vein I have lost track by several hundred of the number of times I have read the assertion that ‘Leave (always capitalised) means Leave’. Yes it does. And ‘carrot’ means ‘carrot’, ‘pangolin’ means ‘pangolin’ and ‘vacuous sloganeering’ means exactly what it says on the tin.

To be fair, I understand the attraction of such slogans. There is a simplicity to them - a clarity and a cleanness that is attractive. To those who wish this country to leave the EU it seems desirable that we should do so as quickly and with as few complications as possible. I wholly understand that. There are those too who insist that this country’s recent economic problems, such as the falling value of the Pound, are not caused by Brexit per se  but by the uncertainty surrounding it. Once we are out, the argument goes, the uncertainty will end. 

Maybe. The thing is, though, that as Leo Varadkar reminded Boris Johnson this week, once the UK leaves the EU that will not be the end of negotiations and discussions - it will be the beginning. A No-Deal Brexit, far from being a clean break, will be the messiest of greenstick fractures. In the event of a No-Deal Brexit, when we come to sit down with the EU to discuss a trade deal - as we assuredly will - before any discussion takes place they will re-open the issues of the border in Ireland, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the £39 billion we promised; not because they want to be cussed, but because they are real issues and they will not go away simply because the 31st October has been and gone. Indeed, they are likely to be even harder to resolve.

More than that, though, the idea that we could ‘just walk away’ has always been no more than a fantasy - like the fantasy we all have sometimes of simply walking away from our jobs. In the same way, though, that one cannot simply walk away from a marriage without dealing with issues like the mortgage, custody of the kids, shared bank accounts and the like, the UK cannot simply walk away from the EU. After a relationship of more than forty years we are bound together by hundreds of agreements that deal with questions like; ‘Which airlines get to fly through whose airspace?’, ‘Who is allowed to sell nuclear and medical materials and to whom?’ and ‘What paperwork is required at ports?’

Which is not to say that these issues can’t be dealt with, but they cannot be solved overnight on October 31st. Solving them would take time during which the current arrangements would be maintained - the essence of a Deal’. The reality is that a ‘clean break’ from the EU is - and always has been - magical thinking. The best that we can hope for - if we do leave the EU - is a greenstick fracture that isn’t too messy. A No-Deal Brexit would be very, very messy.