December 29, 2018
The Sum of All Brexit Fears
LONDON – Day after day, week after week, most British citizens think that the turmoil over their country’s proposed exit from the European Union cannot get any worse. But, without fail, it does. Turmoil turns into humiliating chaos; a political crisis threatens to become a constitutional crisis.
Meanwhile, the date of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU gets closer. It is fewer than 100 days until the UK leaves, and at the moment there is no deal in sight that is acceptable to both Parliament in Westminster and the European Commission and European Council in Brussels.
The problem began with the 2016 referendum vote to leave. Unfortunately, despite plotting and planning for this outcome for years, Leavers had no idea what quitting the EU would actually entail. Their campaign was rife with delusions and dishonesty. Leaving, they said, would mean a financial bonanza, which the UK would inject into its National Health Service. Negotiating a trade deal with the EU after departure would be easy. Other countries around the world would queue up to make deals with Britain. All lies.
The Brexit talks themselves, when they finally began, were hampered by the incompetence of the ministers put in charge. The UK’s negotiators were long on ideological certainty and short on workable solutions.
Moreover, the red lines that Prime Minister Theresa May laid down at the very beginning made their work more difficult. We must not only leave the EU, she argued, but also the single market and the customs union. We could not accept any jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice. We must be able to end the freedom of European citizens to come to the UK to staff our hospitals, pick our crops, fill gaps in our professional services, and increase our prosperity.
One of the central problems to emerge from this mish-mash of nonsense was how to avoid re-establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK stayed within May’s red lines. Such a border would (as the head of Northern Ireland police noted) jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of violence.
Recent negotiations have stalled on this point, because a successful outcome must square a circle. Britain has already accepted that Northern Ireland will have to stay in the customs union until the UK has concluded a long-term trade deal with the EU. Until then, there will have to be an insurance policy – a “backstop” – against possible failure. But hard-liners within May’s Conservative Party, and Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, on whom May depends for her parliamentary majority, will accept only a backstop with a time limit, which is no real “stop” at all.
At the root of May’s difficulties is a simple truth that she and others are unwilling to accept. It is well-nigh impossible to negotiate an exit deal that is both in the national interest and acceptable to the right-wing English nationalists in her party. This became crystal clear during a grim week for the government earlier this month.
After May and her advisers concluded that the exit deal she had negotiated with the EU would be defeated in Parliament by a large majority, they suspended the debate before voting took place. May then announced that she was going to talk to other EU presidents and prime ministers to get the sort of reassurances that might satisfy her right-wing critics.
Those critics have operated increasingly like a party within a party. Halfway through May’s frantic diplomatic safari, they announced that they had gathered enough support to trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party. She won the vote with about two-thirds support, but with her authority badly dented.
Capping an awful week, European ministers made clear that they were not prepared to reopen the agreement with Britain to renegotiation. They could offer “best endeavours” and “good will,” but no more.
So what happens next? May’s supporters think she is determined; others reckon she is simply obstinate and blind to reason. She has continued to put off any debate on her own proposals. Critics say she is trying to push any vote as close to the exit date as possible, in order to pressure MPs to support her plan. “Back my plan or face the disaster of no deal,” she seems to be saying. “Support me or we’ll jump off the cliff.”
But pressure is building for Parliament to take control of the process and work through a more acceptable range of options. Is there a majority in favor of May’s deal? Is Parliament totally opposed to crashing out of Europe with no deal? Should we seek a Norway-style relationship with Europe and aim to stay in both the single market and the customs union, at the cost of continuing to accept free movement of workers? Should we try to postpone the date of our EU departure until we have sorted out what exactly we want? Should there be another referendum, passing the final decision back to the people?
A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come.
The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.