On 23rd June, 2016, the British public plunged British politics into a period of profound uncertainty, by voting to leave the European Union. Now, this is not the place to pour over the reasons for that decision. Nor to argue for its reversal. A majority, however slender, voted in favour of Brexit—and Brexit is what they will get. The problem is that 18 months on from the referendum exactly what this means in practice still remains far too vague for comfort.
Of course to some extent this is to be expected. Remain was always the devil you know; leave, the massive leap in the dark you don’t. However this inescapable reality has been further accentuated by the fact that few within the Westminster bubble expected the vote to turn out as it did, with even those who campaigned to leave—the Johnsons, Goves and Farages of British politics—barely bothering to concern themselves with the finer details of what in practice Brexit would entail.
Across the board there was an almost criminal lack of serious planning, and perhaps even more concerningly of proper leadership, too. Following the vote the Prime Minister responsible for opening this can of worms washed his hands of the whole mess by promptly resigning. Meanwhile his replacement, who in a curious turn of events came from the remain side of the debate, has since contrived to lose her majority in an election called precisely for the purposes of increasing her mandate and thus by extension strengthening her negotiating position in Europe.
Add in a cabinet and official opposition sharply—and at times comically—divided over the question of how to approach Brexit, along with a parliament and wider political elite stuffed with Europhile malcontents (aka ‘Remoaners’) who seem intent on making the process of leaving as arduous and convoluted as is humanly possible, and the result is a complete muddle. How, after all, can anyone conduct meaningful talks with Britain, when Britain itself knows not what it wants?
In face of criticisms that its aims are unclear, with the few ideas it does have tending towards the unrealistic, over the summer the government released a series of ‘position papers’ in the hopes of putting some meat on the bones of its negotiating strategy. Rather than allay misgivings, however, these documents merely confirmed them. In short, the position of the UK government appears to be that it wants all the benefits of EU membership, unrestricted access to the single market especially, yet few if any of the downsides.
The more bullish among the Brexiteers’ ranks may think it possible to make the EU blink first. However this seems little more than wishful thinking. Granted, barriers to trade would hurt continental economies too, particularly those of major exporters like Germany. However a bespoke arrangement in which the UK gets to cherry pick the bits it likes while discarding the rest would threaten to undermine the integrity of the entire European project, which from Brussels’ perspective is a far bigger concern than mere matters of finance. (These, after all, are the same people who’ve stuck with the Euro for obviously political reasons, despite some deeply unfavourable economic indicators.)
More than that, because Article 50 has been invoked, which imposes a two-year limit on the process of leaving, EU negotiators can rest easy knowing time’s on their side. And this, in conjunction with a certain desire to make an example of Britain, gives them licence to be difficult. Accordingly, they will either look to extract important concessions, especially on free movement and citizens rights. Or they will let time run out, leaving the UK little choice but to exit without any kind of deal, transitional or otherwise.
In the case of the former occurring, a not insignificant amount of time and treasure will have been spent to get the UK back to more or less the same place as it is now—a good trade deal, easy movement across borders, close cooperation on certain transnational issues like security and climate change, legal standardisation and with it some kind of overarching ECJ supervision. Should this kind of ‘soft’ Brexit come to pass, it would make a mockery of the talk of ‘taking back control’ and ‘out means out’ on which the referendum was fought and won. And in turn the perception that a devious Westminster establishment had overridden the will of the people would further erode confidence in an already deeply distrusted political system.
On the other hand if the UK were to leave without a deal, aka ‘hard’ Brexit, then the loss of tariff-free access to its biggest market would in all likelihood result in a prolonged period of economic hardship. Then there’s the doubtless quickly spiralling costs associated with the imposition of a stricter customs regime, the creation of new regulatory bodies, the recruitment of thousands of additional civil servants, etc. And this is to say nothing of the large divorce bill that would still be placed at the UK’s door (somewhere between €20-60bn if the numbers currently floating around are anything to go by).
Factor in the particularly thorny issues—the Irish border question above all—on which some kind of working arrangement surely has to be reached before leaving, and it’s hard to see talk of exiting the EU sans accord as anything other empty threats, on the part of a weak government that finds itself backed into a corner. Nevertheless, even if a settlement is agreed it must still pass through parliament, then the lords—and in both houses the government will struggle to command a majority, with rebellion as likely to come from its own benches as from the oppositions.
If faced with an insurmountable democratic mutiny, what then? It’s not beyond the realms of plausibility to suggest the prime minister would resign and that some kind of government of national unity would form, with the express intention of asking for a pause in negotiations. Many who’d like to see Brexit reversed may hope for just that. But it’s no more than a stopgap. A resolution of last resort that if continued indefinitely would leave the UK to flounder around in a sort of semi-permanent political and economic limbo.
The unavoidable truth, then, is that Brexit has thrust British politics down a rabbit hole in which a prime minister who did not wish to leave is now presiding over a process of doing just that, despite not having much of a clue as to how to go about it or where it will end up, because for the sake of democracy this hugely disruptive undertaking must be carried out no matter how ill-advised it becomes. Remainers despair, Brexiteers rejoice, all the while Britain stares into the abyss with no option but to jump.