Brexit: Between Scylla and Charybdis
The Strait of Messina is a narrow waterway between the eastern tip of Sicily (Punta del Faro) and the western tip of Calabria (Punta Pezzo). Located in the south of Italy, it connects the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north with the Ionian Sea to the south, within the central Mediterranean. In other words, it is the space between the boot of Italy and its football.
As my mind sails across a Brexit brainwashed Europe, I am reminded of my Homer and his follow up to the Iliad — the Odyssey. It is believed that Homer comprised his second major opus back in the 8th century B.C. In this epic poem, the most bodacious of Greek bards focuses on the Ionian hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths), who was the King of Ithaca and the most cunning of all Greeks. The story is simply about Odysseus’ journey home after the fall of Troy. Odysseus’ odyssey is quite different from the romantic mega battles of the Iliad, there are fewer characters and even fewer heroes in the Odyssey, but Homer’s sequel does stand out in one particular way: it is filled with monsters (sorry Godzilla).
Scylla and Charybdis are mythical sea monsters first recorded by Homer in his Odyssey. The Greeks had a habit of rationalizing and animizing certain natural phenomenon into supernatural beings. These particular Meditteranean monsters were said to reside opposite sides of the Strait of Messina. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily.
Ever since the tiresome days of triremes, Scylla and Charybdis have been regarded as maritime hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, considering the lesser of two weevils (sic), as sailing close to the Charybdis whirlpool would have put his risked the loss of his entire ship.
Because of such stories, having to navigate between the two hazards eventually entered idiomatic use. Another equivalent English seafaring phrase is, “Between a rock and a hard place”.
The Latin line incidit in Scyllam cupiēns vītāre Charybdem (he runs into Scylla, wishing to avoid Charybdis) had earlier become proverbial, with a meaning similar to jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Erasmus (who today is better known as a European study abroad program) recorded the hallowed Homeric phrase as an ancient proverb in his Adagia, although the earliest known instance of the phrase can be found in a much later (12th-century A.D.) Latin epic poem, the Alexandreis by Walter of Châtillon, which chronicled the odyssey of a man who considered himself the reincarnation of Homer’s most famous hero.
Brexit: Politics Getting in the Way of Business
On Thursday the 23rd of June, 2016, Britain turned the world upside down (once again?) via a referendum — a vote in which every Briton (or nearly everyone) of voting age took part — on whether or not to leave the European Union (EU). Despite all polls pointing the other way, Britons voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave, putting the portmanteau of Brexit into (remorseful?) action.
Over 1000 days and nights onwards, Brexit continues to captivate the minds of the masses, moving beyond practical realpolitik and into the hysterical. Despite a spooky Halloween extension, the whole process seems to be stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.
Transiting through London this past Saturday, I had the chance to catch up with two dear friends trying to steer their entrepreneurial ships through the stormy seas blown up by Brexit. One is a European trying to expand his business in the UK, whilst the other is a Brit trying to expand his business across continental Europe. Both shrugged ominously when asked about Brexit. “Its the unpredictability that stings the most,” and we all know how terrible unpredictability is for business. Both are definitely fed up with the ebb and flow of no-deal vs. deal or the hard vs soft Brexit, not the mention the aftermath of the 585-page withdrawal agreement, a legally-binding text that sets the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU, which will be a costly affair given that the UK owes the EU an estimated £39bn. Both are also concerns with the lack of clarity concerning the cross border migration of talent exemplified by UK citizens trying to work in the EU and EU citizens trying to work in the UK. This techy solution seems to overcomplicate things further! Also, we haven’t even gotten to the bloody backstop yet.
A primary concern amongst my two entrepreneurs is how a no-deal Brexit would negatively affect their healthcare. A no-deal would mean the current reciprocal healthcare arrangement, shared by the UK and the EU27, would no longer apply. Hello Charybdis. Both entrepreneurs would most definitely see health insurance premiums soar for their UK employees who would need sufficient cover for holidays or work in the EU. Their British employees would be picked off by Scylla and find that their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) — a passport to emergency medical treatment — would no longer be valid in most EU countries. A similar doomsday scenario should be expected of their EU employees working in the UK. So much for your big bus Boris.
Ending full circle with our mythology, it took Odysseus ten years to reach his home on Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. With the current British and European leadership avoiding to fully commit to a seemingly less dangerous Scylla type scenario, it looks like most British entrepreneurs may be soon following a similar double decade of res decianae decimation and despair within the political wilderness, whirling away and risk sinking their entire ship into a cold, calamitous, Charybdis.