Britain still plans to “Brexit” the European Union. That much we know for certain. Responding to the British referendum vote in June 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government formally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29 of this year. Thus, according to the terms of the treaty, the clock is ticking toward formal separation between the United Kingdom and the European Union by that date in 2019. The terms of the separation between the UK and its twenty-seven European partners, however, and the shape of the relationship that will exist after that date, remain as uncertain as ever. The Brexit vote, touted by its advocates as a bold, clear stroke that would liberate Britain from the shackles of a Brussels-based EU Superstate, has become part of a slow-motion political crisis in Britain whose conclusion no one can predict with any confidence.
The Brexit vote did not necessarily cause this crisis. Rather, it has been at the same time both consequence and catalyst. Many who voted to leave the EU did so because they shared a general sense that British society was changing in uncomfortable ways—because of immigration, cultural liberalization, and the economic globalization that accelerated it all—and imagined that leaving the EU would somehow preserve British society. That their votes may have been inspired by misleading slogans (promising a sudden windfall for the national health service, for example, or underestimating the difficulty of securing a good post-Brexit deal with the EU, or the chances for trade deals elsewhere on the globe) reflected the depth of the existing identity crisis within certain segments of British society that allowed people to be misled. That those concerns have not really been addressed in the nearly eighteen months since Britons cast their votes has only deepened the crisis by creating further uncertainty and feeding populist cynicism about the effectiveness of the nation’s political leadership. This general malaise has led Steven Erlanger of the New York Times to conclude, “No One Knows What Britain is Anymore.”
The continuing uncertainty about the future of Brexit is the result of both international and domestic challenges. Internationally, the May government has not made much obvious headway in its preliminary negotiations with the European Union. After multiple rounds of talks, the only thing that all have agreed upon is that there is a great deal to do and relatively little time between now and March 2019 to resolve every question—from the status of British retirees in the EU to the status of EU nationals in Britain, from the reach of EU regulations to the management of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier has warned that the negotiations could stretch out well beyond the official deadline. Critics have blamed the slow progress on lack of preparation by the British negotiators, who showed up to early meetings with few position papers and no concrete plans. Enthusiastic Brexiteers, who still believe that the UK will flourish immediately after escaping Brussels’s clutches, have had it both ways: they have attacked the EU negotiators for being too interested in punishing Britain and also argued that there is no need for a deal at all. They claim that a “hard Brexit,” in which Britain simply cuts all ties and is free to make new deals with the rest of the world, will be the best option, and don’t fear the failure of negotiations at all.
That hard core Brexiteer sentiment nevertheless remains a minority voice in the halls of government and especially among specialists in international trade and diplomacy. Much more common is the belief that Britain will pay a significant cost in the short and medium term by losing its ties to the EU, with at best a long-term chance to make that up with trade deals with the rest of the world. Theresa May herself, while proclaiming her willingness to walk away from a bad deal, has made clear that she accepts the reality that Britain has to work out myriad details with its European partners and that some kind of deal would be best for all sides. For that reason, British negotiators have (despite furious Brexiteer objections) accepted the idea that Britain will have to pay billions in euros to settle existing British commitments to the EU, even if the exact amount remains in dispute. May has also accepted the idea of some kind of transition period after the March 2019 deadline, to smooth over the relationship. As proof of her commitment to carrying out Brexit in a spirit of “cooperation and partnership,” May traveled to Florence in late September to give a speech outlining her vison. “Yes,” she concluded, the negotiations to get there will be difficult. But if we approach them in the right way – respectful of the challenges for both sides and pragmatic about resolving them – we can find a way forward that makes a success of this for all of our peoples.” In an effort to soften the anti-European tones of much British rhetoric, the Prime Minister conceded: “I recognize that this is not something that you – our European partners – wanted to do. It is a distraction from what you want to get on with. But we have to get this right.”
Getting it right, however, is much easier said than done. May’s speech received distinctly mixed reviews. Brexiteers praised her “bold” assertion that no deal was better than a bad deal, while critics claimed she was living in a “parallel universe,” in which hopes that Britain can distance itself from all of the European institutions it rejects—from the European Court of Justice to free movement within the EU—while maintaining all of the economic advantages of current EU membership. Guardian commentator Anne Perkins refers to this approach as “May’s cakeist approach to Brexit (as in, having it and eating it),” a policy that appeals to the consumers of cakes much more than the bakers, and which is unlikely to appeal to an EU that is in no mood to reward Britain for abandoning the Union.
Differences of opinion run deep in Britain, and reflect significant domestic political turmoil. As Majalla readers will remember, Prime Minister May ascended to No. 10 Downing Street as a result of David Cameron’s abrupt resignation in response to the Brexit referendum. Seeking a stronger mandate, she called snap elections this past spring, shortly after the official triggering of Article 50. It seemed like a good idea at the time, as opinion polls suggested May’s Tories would win handily. The result, however, was disastrous for her position. Although the Tories were able to hold onto government, they lost their absolute majority in Parliament, and depend upon the support of a small Northern Irish Unionist party to control the House of Commons. The Labour Party, led by 1970s-throwback Jeremy Corbyn, did surprisingly well by hammering May and the Tory leadership for being out of touch with working Britons, allowing Corbyn to save his own position as Labour leader.
The Prime Minister’s efforts to reassert her control have gone almost comically astray. At the recent Tory Party Conference in Manchester, her big speech, which promised to chart a bold course for the future, was interrupted first by a prankster who tried to hand her a form P45 (the British version of the American “pink slip” a worker receives when she is laid off—“Boris Johnson said to give you this,” said the prankster) and then by a series of coughing fits that she could not shake, despite multiple sips of water and a throat lozenge proffered by one of her few Cabinet allies, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. Then, adding further ironic insult to injury, the sign behind May proclaiming the Tory commitment to “Building a Country That Works For Everyone,” randomly dropped the “F” from “For.” Her shambolic performance highlighted the shambolic state of Britain’s government.
In the weeks since then, May has had to deal with further dissension within her Cabinet, with Home Secretary Amber Rudd (an ambitious possible successor) calling the possibility of no deal “unthinkable” while Brexit Minister David Davis told the House of Commons that Britain must be prepared for the possibility of no deal. May has indicated her desire to reshuffle her Cabinet to restore her authority, but has not been willing or able to move either Foreign Minister Johnson—despite his multiple gaffes—or Davis, even as they undermine her authority. May has temporized, and while she has weighed her options, a rash of sexual harassment claims against British politicians (partial fallout from the heightened attention to such issues thanks to the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood) has forced the resignation of Minister of Defense Michael Fallon, who was considered one of her allies.
May’s internal party rivals—most visibly Foreign Minister Johnson and the darling of social conservatives Jacob Rees-Mogg, are happy to stoke public discussion of the best replacement for the Prime Minister, but none of them has much stomach for forcing a crisis that would require another election and give Labour the chance to complete its recovery. All of this means that British political observers are skeptical that May will successfully serve out her current term in office, but no one can say when she would be likely to leave. So far, she has been able to rely on the lack of acceptable alternatives, but it is not likely that such a weakened Prime Minister can offer bold leadership on the most important diplomatic crisis in a generation. It is more likely that, even if May manages to bring these negotiations to an acceptable conclusion, any deal will probably require a vote in Parliament, sparking a crisis within the government and will probably lead to the new elections that May hopes so to avoid.
Even as Theresa May’s future hangs in the balance, however, it is not clear what a change in government would mean for the future of Brexit. Drawing on Labour traditions of opposition to European integration that go back to the 1960s and 1970s, Jeremy Corbyn has long been hostile to the European Union. Although Labour officially campaigned to Remain during the 2016 Brexit referendum, Corbyn’s support was tepid, and he rushed to endorse the ultimate vote for Brexit. Although he surprised observers by announcing he would vote to Remain in any future referendum, he has also made clear that a Labour government led by him would not seek to reverse the process, and is more interested in the domestic transformation of post-Brexit Britain. His surprisingly strong showing in the June elections has made it very unlikely that he could be replaced before the next general election. This is a source of intense frustration for Labour voters in larger cities and among the intellectual classes, who adhere to the pro-European sentiments of previous Labour Prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Unfortunately for Remainers, the same split between technocratic neoliberals and neo-socialist populists that has roiled many center-left parties across the West has also robbed the Remain camp of any clear political party to support. The Liberal Democrats continue to present themselves as the only truly pro-European party in Britain, but their small parliamentary profile and the continuing criticism they receive from many centrists for their participation in a coalition with Cameron and the Tories further undermine their political effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the loudest and most visible Brexiteers outside of government responsibility, led by Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party, have not allowed anything to sway them from their opinion that Brexit is the right thing for Britain. Disdaining those who want to slow or reverse the process as “Remoaners,” Brexiteers in politics and journalism dismiss any discussion of the challenges of a Brexit deal with references to the much more glorious future to come. Farage himself has even written to Barnier requesting a special meeting to discuss Brexit, despite the fact that Farage holds no political office in Britain. Any reports of problems in the negotiations with the EU are merely proof that the Europeans are terrible sore losers who are trying to stand in the way of British progress. For them, no deal is far better than any deal that Brussels would accept. What the May government officially considers “falling off a cliff,” these Brexiteers consider soaring into the open skies ahead. Far from providing constructive ideas for making the Brexit deal work, Farage and his compatriots, citing the successes of Euroskeptics elsewhere on the Continent, are unafraid of a breakdown in talks that they expect will damage the EU far more than it will damage Britain. Whatever one may feel about the EU as an institution, it is hard to see such sentiments providing any helpful impulses to move the negotiations along more smoothly.
Governmental and party paralysis come at a time when the legitimacy of the entire Brexit referendum is being called into question. Recent investigative reports in both the Times and the Guardian, inspired by recent revelations of shadowy technical means used to sway American voters, have also indicated that some of the same firms (and, more importantly, the same Russian sources of money and influence) may have played a role in shaping public attitudes toward Brexit, with an eye toward weakening both Britain and the EU at the same time. The implications of those revelations for the future of politics and political campaigns across the West may be grave indeed.
Pressure has also been building on EU nationals living and working in the UK. The government has been vague about how it plans to handle their situations after Brexit. If Britain rejects the principle of free movement between the UK and the EU, then those Europeans who have not become British subjects—many of whom have already been made to feel unwelcome by their pro-Brexit neighbors—will have to work out a new legal status, or leave the UK altogether, no matter how long they have already been in Britain. The government has promised a system that will be “streamlined and easy to use,” but that has not calmed all fears. EU residents of Britain have expressed their frustration with a new twitter hashtag, #500DaysinLimbo, to highlight the concerns of those who fear their careers and families will be put in jeopardy by a flawed Brexit process. For them, the “hard Brexit” so causally embraced by the Brexiteers would be especially hard to take.
There are many moving parts in this complex mechanism. In addition to the British domestic and international political issues discussed here, there are the interests of the EU as an institution—which is dealing with challenges from both Brexit and a rising tide of Euroskepticism in Eastern Europe, not to mention the ongoing challenges of immigration and economic weakness on its southern borders—as well as the domestic and foreign policies of key European powers such as France and Germany. All of these issues (the subjects of future articles) will shape the deal that eventually emerges from the current negotiations. Whether one believes that Brexit was the right idea for Britain or not (or whether or not one believes the future of Europe depends upon a successful European Union, for that matter), the British electorate’s narrow decision in the June 2016 referendum has exposed deep divisions within Britain and between Britain and her European partners. For those on both sides of the Channel, the last year and a half have called into question a great many relationships once considered settled and stable. The questions continue to mount, and the answers remain uncertain. The best one can say for now is that the search for answers, and for a stable post-Brexit world, will continue.
*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.