by Ronald J. Granieri*
At the heart of the Brexit debate lies the question of borders. Advocates of leaving the European Union emphasized the need for Britain to “take control” of its borders, with special attention to reducing the flow of immigrants, while not harming British global trade. Brexiteers claimed that decoupling from the EU would allow Britain to pursue future free trade agreements superior to anything they could get within it. In other words, they promised to have hard borders against people while opening borders to goods, services, and capital.
Of course, wanting something and getting it are two very different things, especially if getting it depends on complex negotiations with one’s soon-to-be-former partners. The problem for the British government has been multi-faceted. Domestically, the British have struggled to decide among themselves what Brexit actually means. Do they want to maintain some of the connections with Europe in order to enjoy continued benefits (a “soft Brexit”) or do they want simply to cut off all connections and build their global economic relations anew (a “hard Brexit”)? Do they want a connection to the EU similar to Norway or Switzerland (who make some payments and accept some EU regulations while staying outside of the Union) or do they imagine themselves a completely independent world trading power, striking some kind of independent deal with Europe? During the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, advocates of leaving the EU were studiously vague on their detailed plans—in large part because they did not have any. Leaving the EU would somehow liberate Britain from the Brussels yoke, provide untold millions for the British treasury, and allow “Global Britain” to reclaim its position as a word power even as Britons were promised that they would lose few if any of the advantages already offered by EU membership. The details could be worked out later.
Since the British public has voted, however, “later” approaches with increasing and worrying rapidity. Although Prime Minister Theresa May sought to provide clarity by announcing that “Brexit means Brexit” and providing a series of programmatic speeches, fissures within the government have remained. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is suspected by his Tory colleagues of favoring a soft Brexit and of being a stalking horse for Prime Minister May on some kind of secret plot to remain in the EU, while Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, as well as cabinet colleagues David Davis, Liam Fox, and Michael Gove, seconded by popular Euroskeptic tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg argue for a hard Brexit, or no deal at all with the EU, unless Europe acceded to their wishes.
British confusion leads us to consider the other complex side of the equation, the European position. European leaders have made clear that they would prefer that the British reverse their referendum decision. That being extremely unlikely, Europeans have to decide whether to drive an especially hard bargain (thus discouraging future possible “exits” from the Union), which risks damaging Anglo-European relations, or rather to signal maximum accommodation, in the hopes of limiting damage all around.
Neither the internal nor the external process is completely independent; they influence each other, and both processes are conducted largely in public, with sometimes unintended consequences. Thus, some British politicians may feel that insisting on a “hard Brexit,” with minimal to no connection to the EU, will force Europe to make concessions, and result in some variant of the Norwegian option, which they secretly prefer. British truculence could however just as easily lead negotiators in Brussels also to lean toward a hard line, making the hard Brexit a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that a softer approach from either side will lead to a deal, as softness from one side could just as easily provoke greater demands from the other. Both sides have an interest in driving the hardest possible bargain, even if both also have a strong interest in an ultimate deal that leaves Britain and the EU on reasonably good terms. So, Theresa May’s government and the EU are locked in a game of chicken facing a March 2019 deadline. It’s very unlikely that all issues will be resolved by that date, and both sides already speak of transition periods, but that is yet another potential cause for conflict. A hard deadline would make a hard Brexit more likely.
Such discussions are theoretical, but they have been complicated of late by some practical concerns, which reveal just how much remains to be resolved in the months ahead.
The most obvious and pressing issue is that of the Irish border, which would be the only land border between the UK and the EU after Brexit. One of the greatest diplomatic accomplishments of the last two decades has been the reduction in tensions along that border. Thanks to the Good Friday agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland has self-rule within the United Kingdom and peace between Catholics and Protestants while also enjoying seamless trade relations with the Irish Republic thanks to their common membership in the EU. A post-Brexit situation in which that border needed to be hardened threatens all of that. Can a border exist that is both hard and permeable? Anything is possible if both sides negotiate in good faith toward common interests, but so far negotiations are stalled. Brexit Secretary David Davis first advocated the application of new technology to allow the smooth movement of goods, but there is little precedent for such a plan, and it is already too late to implement it in time for next year. Davis’s subsequent suggestion of smoothing over the process by creating a ten-mile buffer zone in Ireland merely extends the problem, and was denounced as “bonkers” by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce.
A hard border in Ireland would not only reverse the trend of greater commerce and movement on the island, it threatens the political settlement at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. Good options are few, and negative consequences are easy to see. A hard border poses the stark choice of deepening Irish division after decades of reconciliation; some kind of special status for the island, even if the UK and EU could work out the details, would threaten to divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, placing the hard border somewhere in the Irish Sea. An optimist (especially one living in the Irish Republic) could argue that this would be a step toward Irish reunification, and the ultimate resolution of the Irish Question. But such thoughts are not likely to create much enthusiasm among Protestants in Ulster. This is all that much more complicated because Theresa May’s current governing majority depends upon the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party, a party whose very existence is built on rejecting unification with the south and maintaining Northern Ireland’s connection with the UK. Any Irish border deal that watered down the connection between Northern Ireland and the UK would bring down Theresa May’s government.
The question of the DUP is but one example of the intersection of Brexit and British domestic politics. Although both the ruling Tories and the Labour Party are committed to managing Brexit, May’s government enjoys a very slim majority. Bickering among Tory cabinet members over the proper pace and degree of Brexit makes her government feel shaky. The House of Lords, where the government does not enjoy a majority, added to the constitutional chaos by using its rights as a consultative body to pass fifteen different amendments to the government’s proposed Brexit bill. The Lords’ objections touched on specific concerns such as environmental policy and other regulations, but provoked extreme reactions from pro-Brexit politicians, who charged the aristocrats planned to thwart the will of the people. That the ensuing discussions led former Tory politicians and newspapers such as the Daily Express to speculate about abolishing the House of Lords is a stark indication of how Brexit continues to roil and divide British conservatives. Labour’s own internal disagreements about Brexit (Leader Jeremy Corbyn, true to his political roots in the leftist politics of the 1970s, is much more hostile to Europe than much of Labour’s urban educated bourgeois clientele) mean that a change of government will not likely reverse the decision to leave, but new elections will only add to the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s negotiating positions and its ultimate fate.
Then there is the ongoing debate over the status of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens residing on the Continent. Both Prime Minister May and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier have declared their desire to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, but EU nationals in Britain remain suspicious of the government’s long-term willingness to guarantee their rights. The recent Windrush scandal, in which former citizens of the British West Indian colonies who were brought to the UK in the 1960s to deal with local labor shortages, suddenly discovered that their lack of formal papers meant they were vulnerable to deportation as illegal aliens, cost Home Secretary Amber Rudd her job. More than that, it offered a stark example of what could happen to EU nationals in Britain if the government did not develop clear policies for protecting their right to remain. That the Home Office’s proposed “user friendly” app for applications for permanent residence only completely worked on Android phones was another black eye for the process. News reports Lord Nigel Lawson, the chair of Vote Leave and longtime Euroskeptic peer, who lives in France, recently applied for a French residency card, created another public relations problem. Lawson makes no secret of his preference for living in his French chateau, and even less about taking advantage of the clear French requirements for securing residency, essentially preserving for himself a comfortable back door arrangement in Europe even as he preaches the benefits if Brexit for his unfortunate brethren on the other side of the Channel.
Recent moves by the Trump Administration to impose tariffs on European steel and aluminum have a negative impact on British producers, and also raise the question of whether post-Brexit Britain will really be able to strike favorable free trade deals after leading the Bloc. President Trump and his team may be generally favorable to Brexit, but that does not mean that this American administration, which does not shy from punishing even longstanding allies in its pursuit of America first trade policies, will do Britain any favors in the name of the special relationship. A Britain no longer part of the larger European Union may even have less leverage with the United States than previously.
Any stories written about Brexit must end with the recognition that the future remains open. Although one can regret the British decision to bet the future of their economy and global role on a vaguely worded referendum decided based on misleading premises on a single day in June, there is at present no way politically for the British to disavow their desire to leave the European Union. It is certainly possible (and even more desirable) for that division to be managed smoothly, and for the future borders to encourage good neighborly relations for those on both sides. Many things are possible, but the clock is ticking.
*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.