Pity British P.M. Elizabeth May. It’s reported that she never believed in Brexit, the Quixotic decision, based on a spectacularly ill-advised referendum, to withdraw the U.K. from the European Union. Now she’s supposed to make it happen, struggling to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis while a pack of braying hard-liners tries to pull her down. These were always going to be difficult shoals to navigate, and the destination was always going to be something between a bitter disappointment and a self-inflicted immolation. She’s brave, really, to keep at it. She can’t win.
The “Leave” side of the Brexit fiasco campaigned endlessly on how the exit from the E.U. would be painless. The U.K. would once again be free to run its own house, maintain its own immigration policies, write its own regulations, negotiate its own trade deals (which were bound to be favourable) and rise once again to prosperity and power in the world, unfettered by the whims of Brussels bureaucrats and officious interference from the Continent. Meanwhile, nothing would be sacrificed, and possible effects upon economic relations with Europe were nothing to worry about. It sounded great!
It was, sadly, also a pack of really quite transparent lies, promulgated by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage, who ran what amounted to the prototype for Trump’s later campaign for President, capitalizing on populist anger, economic dislocation, racism, and essential confusion as to how things work. Much as one later marvelled at how a farcical carnival barker like Trump could win so many over to his side, one watched, gobsmacked, speechless, as these characters carried the day:
When contemplating the sheer brazenness of the hucksterism, as well as the almost shrill tone of the patently false pro-Brexit propaganda that preceded the referendum, one can’t help but reach one of those “I can’t prove it by I know it’s true” conclusions: behind the scenes there must have been a cackling Vladimir Putin pulling the strings, somehow. The misinformation, fake news, and relentless bald-faced lying are too reminiscent of what became of the U.S. Presidential campaign to avoid the suspicion of a single guiding hand, or at least a common strategy of interference. This is particularly so since Brexit is so very much in line with Putin’s fervent wish to disrupt European solidarity and weaken Western alliances, the better to play his fundamentally weak hand against foes who don’t seem to realize they hold nearly all the face cards.
Truly, the way Putin is striding around the world stage like he’s the master of a superpower, rather than the corrupt steward of an economic and military basket case, has to stand as one of the greatest triumphs of image over substance in the history of geopolitics. I suppose we should salute him, grudgingly, for that, and the brilliant game of divide-and-conquer that he’s been playing within the Western alliance system over the past few years.
In any case, the people voted to leave, and it fell to Elizabeth May to send her minions to Brussels to try to negotiate some sort of exit from the E.U. that didn’t end in economic calamity. How well that was bound to go was perhaps best explained in the run-up to the vote by a campaigner billing himself as Lord Buckethead (as introduced by John Oliver):
Thus it happened, just as the astute and eloquent Buckethead predicted. It turned out, perhaps to the shock of the Leave camp and their voters, but to absolutely nobody else, that no, the E.U. was not going to allow the U.K. to leave the union yet retain all the benefits of belonging. No, the U.K. would not enjoy unfettered access to the European Single Market on its own terms. No, U.K. citizens would not retain freedom of mobility and residence within the E.U. while the U.K. denied the same to E.U. citizens within its own borders. On a score of issues, no, no, no.
What P.M. May was able to secure, in the end, was a 585 page deal that seeks to give effect to the referendum outcome while avoiding a catastrophic crashing of the British economy, and this, of course, means abandoning the E.U. while continuing to abide by almost all its rules. Of course it does. As the Economist put it:
…But the animating idea was to “take back control”. In some ways the deal does this, notably in immigration, where Britain would reclaim the right to limit migration from Europe. The price of this is being kicked out of the single market, which would hit the economy. MPs must decide whether the government is right that the public accepts this trade-off.
In other ways Britain will unequivocally forfeit control. It will stay aligned with many of the single market’s current and future rules, to keep trade flowing and the Irish border open, something the EU has made a condition of any deal. Once outside the EU, Britain will have no say in setting these rules. European judges will still arbitrate on such matters, even though Britain will no longer be able to nominate them. This is not taking back control but giving it up. Meanwhile, as long as it remains in a customs union Britain will not even get the consolation prize of signing trade deals with other countries, something by which many Brexiteers have come to set enormous (and unwarranted) store.
This is of course satisfactory to no one. Those who are steadfastly in the Remain camp, despite the referendum, view the deal for what it is, a bad bargain that forces the U.K. to relinquish a seat at the table while continuing to abide by whatever that table decides. The Leave hard-liners, meanwhile, are quite right in asking how in the world May’s deal amounts to actually leaving, while continuing to downplay what truly leaving – the “hard Brexit” – would really mean.
Both the British parliament and the E.U. must now vote to ratify this bargain, and at present it looks like it doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance. What then? There is no better deal to be had, and suggestions to the contrary are either hopelessly wishful or simply disingenuous. At the same time, the prospect of leaving without a deal is beginning to be seen by the U.K. public as every bit as unpalatable as it is.
There is a third option. Put Brexit to a referendum again, this time with the options presented honestly and with clarity:
- Leave with no deal, and go full bore Hard Brexit, consequences be damned
- Leave under the terms of the current, deeply unsatisfactory deal
- Never mind, then, let’s just stay and pretend none of this ever happened
There’s a popular movement in the U.K., operating under the “People’s Vote” banner, agitating for just such a referendum. It’s by no means certain, or even likely, that they’ll prevail. I hope to God they do, though. If May’s deal fails in Parliament, that might provide the opportunity to throw it back to the public, perhaps to the great relief of all concerned. There’s no legal reason it couldn’t be made subject to a referendum even if it manages to pass through Parliament.
I’m famously mired at “oh-fer” when it comes to predicting happy political outcomes, but still, it’s hard to believe that a more sober and informed electorate would choose anything but option three. If it did, this might mark a turning of the tide, as perhaps the U.S. midterms do too, the beginning of a gradual but sustained return to sanity among the Western nations.
Imagine if, by 2020, the whole fever has broken, Donald is gone, the U.K. remains safely ensconced within the E.U., and things start going back to normal!
If it helps, I can promise to bet a sizeable sum against it, which should nudge things in the right direction.