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Britain, Brexit and The Spirit of Dunkirk | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Actor Tom Hardy arrives for the world premiere of Dunkirk in London, Britain, July 13, 2017.

For the past two weeks “Dunkirk” has been top of the box office in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom. The film is fictional rendition of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the French port of Dunkirk in May 1940 as Hitler’s invading divisions blitzed their way towards Paris.

The evacuation involved over 400,000 soldiers, including many Frenchmen and troops recruited in British Empire units such as Canada and Australia.

The greatest retreat in the history of warfare, the Dunkirk operation prevented the Germans from annihilating the bulk of the British military, giving London the chance to prepare to fight another day.

At first glance there was little heroism in such a vast force fleeing without fighting; armies usually retreat after they have fought and lost a battle. And, yet, what came to be known as “the spirit of Dunkirk” was truly heroic as thousands of ordinary Brits, defying Hitler’s vast war machine, made their way to the French port, often aboard small fishing boats and dinghies and even a few floating bath-tubs to help bring the stranded soldiers back to England.

Over the following decades “the spirit of Dunkirk” came to indicate a key characteristic of the British: fighting when their backs are to the wall.

Not surprisingly, therefore, those who campaigned for Britain leaving the European Union last year have seized on the excitement created by the new film to inject a bit of heroism in their narrative.

“Yes,” they say,” Britain is heading for tough times outside the European Union. But, helped by the Spirit of Dunkirk, it shall overcome all hurdles.”

One leading campaigner for “Brexit” has even demanded that the new film be shown in schools to boost the morale of the young whose lives will be most affected by leaving the EU.

However, it is hard to draw a parallel between Brexit and Dunkirk if only because the EU can’t be equated with Nazi Germany. Nor was the UK at war with the EU, an alliance of democratic nations which Britain played a leading role in the creation of its latest version.

The question the Brits faced in Dunkirk was one of life and death. As a member of the EU, however, Britain enjoyed the membership of the biggest economic bloc in the world alongside most of its NATO allies.

Advocates of Brexit have cited four reasons why the UK should leave.

The first is “regaining lost national sovereignty”.

However, in is White paper published earlier this year, the government solemnly declared that Britain never lost sovereignty? Membership of the EU meant a sharing of and not a loss of sovereignty. Britain already shares sovereignty in many international and regional organizations including NATO, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank among many others.

If sharing sovereignty is equated with its loss, the UK should withdraw from more than 120 organizations, something that even “fully sovereign” North Korea hasn’t done.

In any case, EU membership involves sharing sovereignty on a limited number of issues linked to commerce, industrial standards, agriculture and working conditions. It does not even extend to such matters as taxation and interest rates let alone issues of national security, defense and foreign policies.

The fact that Britain can leave the EU or any other international organ of which it is a member shows that shared sovereignty does not mean loss of sovereignty.
The claim of loss of sovereignty is bogus.

The second reason cited by Brexiteers with the catch-phrase “control of borders” is equally bogus.

Anyone entering the UK knows that he must show a passport or identity card and be formally admitted into the country. EU citizens have the right to enter the territory of any member state without a visa to visit, look for a job, study or simply reside.

But under the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon they cannot stay beyond a three months limit unless they can prove they have a job, are in full-time education or have independent means of support.

Member states can, and in many cases do, expel those EU citizens who do not fulfill any of the stated conditions. In other words, all members, including the UK, already have the right and the power to decide how many EU citizens they wish to host.
The third bogus claim is about “rule by un-elected officials in Brussels.”

However, The Council of Ministers, often referred to as just ‘the Council’, is the EU’s main decision-making and legislative body and is composed of ministers from member states all of whom are democratically elected.

It forms the union’s legislative body together with the European Parliament which is also directly elected by voters in all member states. When it comes to the so-called “Brussels bureaucracy” it is necessary to remember that it is composed of individuals appointed by elected governments of member states in the same way that civil servants are appointed in each country with clear patterns of accountability.

There is nothing that the “Brussels bureaucracy” can do without the approval of the governments of member states and their parliaments.

The final reason cited by Brexiteers is the claim that the UK, outside the EU, would be better able to make trade deals with “the rest of the world.”

However, the UK is already trading with over 190 countries many of which have full or partial trade deals with the EU, deals that the UK has played a key role in shaping. It is not because of EU membership that UK is exporting to the United States half as much as Germany does.

The reason is that Germans produce goods that Americans want to buy and the Brits don’t because the UK has specialized in the service industries at the expense of manufacturing. Being in or out of the EU need not alter that fact.

In other words, there are no objective reasons to necessitate Britain’s exit from the EU whereas the Dunkirk retreat was an inescapable necessity.

However, when it comes to Brexit it would be foolish to ignore the non-objective, emotional, factors.

Many Brits feel there are too many foreigners in their country and blame EU citizens for declining standards in their National Health Service, shortage of affordable housing, pressure on schools and even traffic jams.

Dunkirk was about running away only to return. Will Brexit repeat that?