No exit for the European Union?

James Penn
March 26, 2019

At the time of writing, there are only seven days until the UK, according to its original, agreed timeline, leaves the European Union.

Today, the date of writing is the 22nd, and the departure date is, of course, the 29th.

And yet – despite the imminence of the 29th, despite all the debate over the last three years (or should that be hot air) – there is still little more visibility about will happen than on June 23rd 2016.

The issues are so complex and change so rapidly and so frequently, that most analysts have withdrawn projections for key considerations like where Sterling will be in three months’ time.

Much has been said on the issues by political columnists, but at times like this what tend to inform my thinking are the literary analogies.

The play that most readily springs to mind is ‘Huis Clos’, or No Exit, the existentialist drama written by Jean Paul Satre in 1944.

The play depicts the afterlife, in which three recently deceased characters are punished by being thrown together and locked into a room for eternity.

The characters can’t stand each other, yet are stuck with each other for the rest of time, unable to escape. A bit like the UK’s current predicament with the EU perhaps?

Other English translations of ‘Huis Clos’ over time have been In Camera, No Way Out, Vicious Circle, Behind Closed Doors, and Dead End, all rather apt summaries of what’s going on at present.

Yet despite the rhetoric, the irascible debate, the inability to get a resolution, markets have been fairly benign (though they did fall on Friday – more because of global macro concerns), while Sterling has also been resilient.

Perhaps explaining this, according to the Financial Times it is virtually impossible to find a fund manager who believes the UK will leave the EU without a deal. Despite the talk, it seems there is still no appetite for the ‘cliff edge’.

The most famous quotation from Satre’s play is "L'enfer, c'est les autres", or "Hell is other people", and after her diatribe against the political classes on Wednesday Mrs May must feel like that about her fellow MPs.

Another literary parallel also springs to mind – that of the Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This has nothing to do with the storage of bytes on computers, but with an absurd and virulent argument that has been going on for years in the fictional island of Lilliput.

The novel describes a quarrel over the practice of breaking eggs. Traditionally, Lilliputians broke boiled eggs on the larger end. Then, a few generations before, an Emperor of Lilliput decreed that all eggs should be broken on the smaller end after his son cut himself breaking the larger end. The arguments between Big-Endians (who break their eggs at the larger end) and Little-Endians have given rise to six rebellions, the death one Emperor, and the deposition of another. Swift was satirising religious differences in the eighteenth century, but are there parallels with Parliament’s debates about Europe over the last forty years? Surely not…

In Swift’s novel, Gulliver offers his services to the Emperor of Lilliput in his war against Blefuscu, a nearby island, but after capturing the Blefuscudian fleet soon finds himself at odds with the Emperor after he refuses to conquer the rest of Blefuscu and force it to adopt Little-Endianism.

Will the Maybot soon also find herself out of favour with the powers that be?

One final literary parallel with Theresa May suggests itself – Samuel Becket’s The Unnameable, the last volume of his trilogy. The final line of the book goes:

‘You must go on. I can't go on. I’ll go on.’

Disclaimer: The views thoughts and opinions expressed within this article are those of the author and not those of any company within the Capital International Group (CIG) and as such are neither given nor endorsed by CIG. Information in this article does not constitute investment advice or an offer or an invitation by or on behalf of any company within the Capital International Group of companies to buy or sell any product or security.

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