Nearly three years after the referendum vote to leave the European Union, British policymakers have only just begun to acknowledge the stark choices demanded by Brexit.
If, back in June 2016, you decided to go live under a rock for a while – understandable in light of an escalating tendency for Western electoral politics to mirror and even exceed satire – you may be surprised to learn that Britain today is still a member of the European Union (EU). Unfortunately, the eleventh-hour extension of a fixed two-year negotiation window for the country to chart an orderly course out of the bloc is not the only news which you are likely to find perplexing upon your return to post-truth society. It is a highly remarkable development nonetheless, which underlines the extent to which her Britannic Majesty’s Government nominally led by Theresa May has lost control of Brexit.
After triggering Article 50 a little more than two years ago, May repeatedly insisted that the United Kingdom would be unshackled from Eurocrat tyranny, deal or no deal, by March 29, 2019 at the latest. Instead, with only two weeks to go until the exit date, she has been forced to perform an embarrassing series of U-turns and plead with the EU for more time. As it emerged in a raft of meaningful and less meaningful votes, a parliamentary majority could be found neither in support of the government’s Withdrawal Agreement, nor to march the nation defiantly over the no-deal cliff-edge. May consequently rushed to Brussels, where she was unable to propose a convincing way forward, forcing the EU to come up with a solution to her domestic impasse. Thanks to European intervention, Britain is currently scheduled to crash out slightly later on April 12.
The Indecisive Parliament
The clumsy brinkmanship of Theresa May, who remains stubborn in her refusal to frame Brexit as anything other than binary a choice between her deal and no deal, has earned the Prime Minister much criticism. Even across the pond, a certain Donald Trump Jr attacked May for not heeding the sage advice of his father to sue, rather than talk to, Britain’s closest allies. The Op-Ed in The Telegraph, a prime example of the blurring of satire and reality, lamented that she had squandered a well-deserved opportunity for British people to celebrate their own “Independence Day” when the original Article 50 deadline lapsed last Friday.
A point overlooked in the damning transatlantic indictment by the Trump family’s leading man of letters, however, is that the House of Commons has not been particularly helpful either. MPs in the Palace of Westminster, referred to humorously sometimes as the ‘mother of parliaments’, rejected no less than eight proposals for what the country could possibly do other than go ahead with May’s deal a day before its originally planned departure from the EU. During a second round of indicative votes last night some of the four alternative options tabled failed narrowly but again none managed to secure a legislative majority.
Severing existing ties
While there is little to be gleaned from ongoing plenary debates about what will happen next, they serve as a forceful reminder that Brexit is, above all, a dream rather than an actionable project. Writing in these pages prior to the referendum, I warned that the twin goals of enhanced national sovereignty and increased global trade championed by the Leave campaign were contradictory. As suggested by the British government’s own analysis, extracting the country from the Single Market would come at a heavy cost, not just from erecting new barriers to trade with its wealthy continental neighborhood, but also by severing existing ties with more than 60 non-EU countries with whom Brussels has negotiated some 36 Free Trade Agreements on behalf of member states. The only alternative to such self-inflicted deprivation is to remain deeply integrated into larger economic hubs, like the EU or U.S., and adhere to their rules for market participation.
Unperturbed by these difficult choices, most British policymakers have been sleepwalking towards a selection of imaginary future relationships which represent variations of the famous ‘have your cake and eat it’ mantra adopted by Brexiteer high priests Boris Johnson and David Davis. As was frequently reiterated to the latter by British and EU diplomats – until Davis finally resigned as the head of the newly-created Department for exiting the EU (DexEU) – none of these options were ever available. Rather than surrendering to demands for special treatment made by the three Brexit negotiators dispatched by May in as many years, Brussels has resolutely stood its ground.
Brussels to the rescue?
Indeed, the unity and consistency demonstrated by the EU27 in the face of Brexit are an almost complete inverse of the political infighting and indecision across the Channel. Whatever advantage a ‘perfidious Albion’ might have enjoyed with a divide-and-conquer strategy was lost when the Commission, not the Council, was put in charge of talks and swiftly nipped attempts by London to strike bilateral deals with individual member states (like Ireland) in the bud. The balance of power was then skewed further in favor of the EU when it refused to commence talks until London had triggered Article 50. With the clock running against May’s government, the Commission published a detailed blueprint for a handful of generic post-Brexit relationships as early as December 2017 and has barely moved since. Ironically, and as exemplified by the events of the past week, the United Kingdom has even come to rely on the EU to impose some semblance of structure on its own parliamentary decision-making process.
British politicians of various stripes appear hopeful that Brussels will come to the rescue once more following the defeat of the third ‘meaningful vote’ and parliament’s rejection of alternatives in two indicative votes. Yet although the EU may allow the exit date to be postponed once more, its patience offers no excuse to continue treating Brexit as a game of musical chairs for the prize of entering Downing Street. The referendum has exposed deep regional divisions, some of which threaten the survival of the United Kingdom in its present form. On the economic side, factory closures and the relocation of major firms’ staff and assets to continental Europe reveal that concerns once ridiculed as “project fear” are now material fact.
The unwillingness of UK leaders to confront the harsh realities of Brexit will not make them go away.