The calendar says November, but in the land of Brexit, it’s Groundhog Day.
Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May spent three hours facing a barrage of hostile questions in the House of Commons. Unsurprisingly, many questions attacked her draft Withdrawal Agreement for the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” from the European Union. Also unsurprisingly, most questioners were from her own Conservative party, who accused her (in the words of MP Peter Bone) of failing to deliver “the Brexit the people voted for.”
May defended herself as best she could, engaging in the same ritual she has been forced to perform for her more than two plus years in office. Denying she is in any way retreating from Brexit, the Prime Minister asserted that her plan, which bore many similarities to the “Chequers Plan” she presented to her Cabinet this past summer, marked a “significant” step forward, respecting both British interests and those of Britain’s soon-to-be-former EU partners. In July, the Chequers plan was denounced by her own party for being too soft and offering too many concessions to the EU, resulting in the resignation of the David Davis, Minister in charge of the Department for Exiting the European Union. This plan has also been denounced by her party as too soft and offering too many concessions to the EU, and has resulted in the resignation of Dominic Raab, Minister in charge of the Department for Exiting the European Union.
As regular readers of FPRI publications (and fans of the brilliant Andrew Glencross) know, the people of the United Kingdom voted in a June 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. The author of this catastrophe, Prime Minister David Cameron, having swiftly fled the scene, the Conservatives entrusted the job of steering the ship of state to Theresa May, who promised that “Brexit means Brexit.” After a disastrous snap election which eliminated her majority and left her dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), May has tried to deliver Brexit while avoiding the slings and arrows of her intraparty rivals, whose confidence in their superior judgment is all the more absolute for being untethered from dreary reality.
Peter Bone may indeed be correct that May’s deal is not the Brexit the people voted for, but that is because the people have never been quite clear on what they voted for. The referendum hinged in a deceptively simple question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The government-led pro-Remain campaign emphasized the possible damage of Brexit, but offered at best vague arguments advocating EU membership. The Leave campaign was even less specific, promising financial windfalls and easily negotiated free trade deals without any concrete plan at all. Everything would be fine once the people spoke. Or at least that is what everyone hoped.
Hard-core Brexiteers such as Bone and more famous Tory colleagues such as Davis, Raab, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, dream of a “hard Brexit,” where Britain can simply cast off the fetters imposed by Brussels, free to negotiate its own (and of course, much better) trade deals with the rest of the world. Theresa May gave them a chance to realize their dreams when she initially named Johnson Foreign Minister and Davis Brexit Minister. When confronted with the reality that an orderly Brexit would require negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the EU, however, they blanched. After failing to make concrete contributions to the negotiations, Johnson joined Davis in resigning this past July in response to the Chequers plan. Raab departed after this recent draft agreement, which his department helped negotiate. In his first interview after exiting the Brexit Office, Raab denounced May for caving in to “EU bullies,” displaying the awareness of European interests common among his colleagues.
May’s draft deal is certainly less than ideal, as most compromises usually are. It concedes that Britain will owe the EU about 40 billion euros to settle outstanding commitments. It also recognizes that Britain will have to respect many EU regulations for a transitional period even as Britain, no longer a member, will lose influence over making those regulations. But it has the virtue of offering a concrete path for Britain to leave the EU while preparing for its future.
The Brexit debate is rhetorical and philosophical as well as political. Even as she has tried to project an image as a pragmatic deal maker, May has been as guilty as her critics in claiming “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The difference is that May believes a good deal is actually possible. Brexiteers appear to believe that any deal the EU would accept has to be bad.
Brexiteer reasoning, whether one agrees or not, is straightforward. Brexiteers believe British membership in the European Union is such a bad thing that leaving it immediately is best, no matter the cost. Even though the moderately Euroskeptic Economist called dreams of a “hard Brexit” a “dangerous delusion,” Brexiteers would rather risk the ensuing chaos than compromise their vision. That so few outside of the Brexiteer camp share this opinion is apparently the source of recurring surprise. Refusing to recognize that the EU as a whole or its individual members have legitimate interests of their own, they would rather Brexit with no withdrawal agreement, and simply build new British relationships on the rubble of the old.
Uninterested in compromises that would threaten their vision, Brexiteers have no answers for the practical concerns of their negotiating partners. Davis famously arrived at the first negotiating session with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier unprepared, and displayed no great appetite for detailed discussions in the few meetings he attended thereafter.
Many Brexiteers saw this lack of detailed preparation as a virtue because their desire was simple. In the phrase associated with Foreign Minister Johnson, Britain wanted “to have its cake and eat it.” They also claimed to believe that Britain’s political and economic weight was so significant that sympathetic leaders in key European states would be Britain’s advocates, making sure that Britain got everything it wanted while having to give little in return. The last two years have offered a stark rebuke to those assumptions. As Robert Shrimsley recently put it: “The philosophy of Brexit was that, freed of EU constraints, the UK would take its rightful place in the world. This is indeed what is happening, but alas that place is not as the great power of their imagination.”
Geopolitics has a way of upsetting comforting ideological illusions. The Irish issue is the clearest example. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the Emerald Isle depended on free movement across a porous border between two member states of the European Union. If the UK leaves the EU, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (the only land border between the UK and EU) could again become a source of conflict. Brexiteers gave this issue little thought during the referendum campaign, and have regarded it as an irritant ever since. Brexiteers may consider Ireland a lesser power, and believe the EU is worthless, but believing makes neither assertion so. The Europeans consider it a vital issue, and have insisted on a solution. Ireland has relied on the advantages of being an EU member state, and the EU27 have been strikingly united in their support. Even Continental populists are more committed to the EU than Brexiteers have understood. Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, whose right-wing governing coalition has also often criticized Brussels, and who currently occupies the rotating Presidency of the EU Council, spoke for the EU as a whole, announcing: “We support the deal… 100 per cent. We are very happy with the result… This deal prevents a hard Brexit. Therefore it helps us in Europe, but even more so it helps Great Britain because a hard Brexit would hit Great Britain significantly more severely. I very much hope that there will be the necessary agreement in the British parliament….”
Brexiteers have suggested that border problems could be solved through technology. Scanners and drones could somehow process customs duties without creating long lines of trucks at customs ports such as Dover. The fact that such technologies do not currently exist and that there are likely to be serious problems at border crossings without a clear agreement has put a damper on those dreams.
Techno-optimism is often more attractive than Luddism, even in Merrie Olde Englande. The problem is the only technology that could truly satisfy all Brexiteer demands is a Time Machine. If they could take the UK back to the days before the Good Friday Agreement, or the last referendum on Europe in 1975, or the halcyon days when Britain stood alone against Nazi-occupied Europe, then it might be possible to imagine Britain simply rebuilding its global position from scratch. But history matters. Existing institutions, even if they are to be changed, have to be properly managed, and the relationships of the present are not so easily cast aside.
Advocates for Remaining in the EU should also keep this in mind. They may hope May’s struggles will allow Britain to stay in the EU after all. But brushing aside the referendum result would have profound consequences for a deeply and narrowly divided United Kingdom that cannot be wished away.
So, what’s next? Completion of this essay has been delayed as the author waited to be sure Theresa May was still Prime Minister before submitting it. So far, Tory rebel threats of a No Confidence, which also followed the Chequers Plan, have not led to action. They may also fade as the ticking clock imposes its discipline on all sides. Conservatives realize their precarious position, and even many Brexiteers are not interested in a general election that could cede power to the Labour Party. Nor should Remainers place much hope in a Labour government, since Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn belongs to that segment of the British Left that has been hostile to EU membership since the 1970s. Corbyn has denounced May’s plan as “a botched, worst-of-all-worlds deal which is bad for Britain,” and promises to stop a no-deal Brexit. He claims Labour could work out a better deal, but has shown little enthusiasm for a second referendum, let alone abandoning Brexit.
After the sound and fury of the past days, weeks, and months, Theresa May remains in No. 10 Downing Street, and Britain remains where it has been since June 2016—on its way out of the European Union. Where the path leads from there is anyone’s guess. Whatever the result, it is not likely to be exactly the Brexit anyone voted for. It is very possible that this draft plan will not receive the necessary Parliamentary approval, and the drama will continue right up until the final deadline in late March. Which will be a bit more than six weeks after Groundhog Day.