In the last couple days I’ve had a few requests for an explanation of what’s going on with Brexit, what is Brexit. I’m no expert on the topic. But I think I can give a broad description of the history and the present. So if you’re interested, here goes. And note I’ll cover ground that many are likely familiar with.
The modern EU starts with the Treaty of Rome signed in 1957. This is basically the beginnings of a customs union or free trade zone in Europe. A key goal was not simply or even primarily economic – at least at first. It was to bind the countries of Western Europe together into an economic zone to prevent a repeat of the two world wars of the first half of the century. Particularly, it’s a longterm plan to keep Germany and France from going to war with each other. This gets upgraded in the early 1990s and in 2007 to what we now know as the European Union, a translational entity with some forms of a federal government. About twenty years ago they moved to a common currency, the Euro. After the end of the Cold War, most of the countries which were in the Warsaw Pact were added to the Union.
The United Kingdom has always had an ambivalent relationship with the EU, as it has to some degree always had with Europe itself. It joined late in 1973 and never joined the currency union. The British currency is still the pound.
For years, especially but not only in the Conservative party, UK politics has been riven by pro-EU and EU-skeptic factions. In 2016, then-PM David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum on continued membership in the EU. This was largely to satisfy the needs of coalition politics in his government. It was something he had to give the anti-EU right in his party to get them on board with other things.
It wasn’t supposed to win. But it did win. Cameron resigned and Theresa May, who was actually on the ‘Remain’ side of the referendum, became PM.
So now Theresa May is Prime Minister with a brief to take the UK out of the EU. Seems simply enough. It’s not simple.
I’ve generally followed the lead of the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole who rightly sees Brexit as essentially an English nationalist independence movement, just one embarked upon without quite realizing it. If England accumulated its empire in a fit of absentmindedness, as the old line had it, it might dissolve its own insular hegemony in a similar act of historical sleepwalking. Think of it as an independence movement against the last 75 years. Or perhaps it’s an independence movement against British history going back to 1707 when England and Scotland went from being in a personal union under the Stuart dynasty to being a single country – The United Kingdom.
The Scots today are fairly ambivalent about remaining in the UK. They definitely don’t want to leave the EU, which would cause all sorts of economic fall out and chain them even more tightly to England. The EU gives great opportunities to the small countries of the Europe.
Northern Ireland is much more complicated. A substantial minority of the population would prefer to unite with the Republic of Ireland, as it has for a century. The unionist still largely define themselves by the opposite view. But critically the two decades of peace in the North have been greatly sustained by the fact that the EU system means there’s no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Bringing one back, which at least seems necessary with Brexit, is a major practical and national complication.
As O’Toole notes, over time it’s not hard to see where Brexit leads to an independent England, or an England shorn of Scotland and over a long time span maybe Northern Ireland too.
But why is this all happening? Why did the British or really rather the English vote for Brexit? A significant factor in the 2016 vote was the anti-immigrant animus which was then roiling all of the Europe. Under something called the Schengen Agremeent, EU citizens can basically move freely through the EU zone.
More generally though it was a belief that England/UK had to or could reclaim its ‘sovereignty’ before it was submerged into the European super state. There’s an echo here of the ‘sovereigntist’ politics we see on the American right with the UN, NAFTA, various international organizations.
But the deeper issue is nostalgia and the UK’s grappling with the 20th century over which time it went from arguably the greatest and wealthiest power in the world with an Empire that spanned the globe to a small island state that stumbled economically through the post-war decades and surrendered its last real colony (Hong Kong) in 1997. Throughout the Brexit agitation a consistent theme was the idea that if the UK could get out from under the EU it could reclaim its role as one of the great powers of the world. It could cut its own trade deals, chart its own course. The world hungered for a strong Britain on the global stage, as a number of British politicians and commentators put it in the lead up to Brexit. Brexit supporters also suggested that the EU needed the UK more than the UK needed the EU and this would shape the exit negotiations.
Nationalism is about aspiration not facts. But none of this bore any relation to any facts of the early 21th century.
In any case, why ever it happened, it happened.
Now it’s the summer of 2016 and Theresa May has a brief to usher the UK out of the European Union. But there was a problem. Or rather several problems. The whole idea had been sold on false premises and now the government was given a mandate that was basically impossible or impossible to do with anything close to majority support on either side of the divide. The matter was probably put most clearly by British columnist Hugo Rifkind, son of a former senior Tory cabinet minister, when he said “the best way to understand Theresa May’s predicament is to imagine that 52 percent of Britain had voted that the government should build a submarine out of cheese.”
You can vote to do it but that doesn’t mean it can be done.
The referendum was sold on false premises and promises by the Leave forces. The real key was that while the referendum was not technically binding on Parliament in constitutional terms voters had voted on a concept with none of the details spelled out. Alas, the details of implementation were almost infinite. It was in the details that the messiness and perhaps unworkability of the whole idea came really to light. Critically, while until very recently all have assumed that Parliament must implement the verdict of the referendum, May still needs to achieve a Parliamentary majority for an actual plan of implementation. That has proven impossible.
When you keep hearing these press reports about Prime Minister May losing the umpteenth vote for her latest Brexit plan that is what that is all about. A minority wants a full Brexit, basically an orderly path out of the European union. But that has all sorts of bad economic consequences and amounts to something close to national self-harm. Getting a majority vote for that has proven impossible. Meanwhile a very mild Brexit, Brexit more in name than reality can’t get a majority either because the hardcore Brexiteers won’t support it and it also can’t get support from the MPs who think the whole idea is stupid.
May is currently saying that rather than call off Brexit she’s inclined to go ahead with a so-called unplanned, “hard” Brexit in like a week. So all of a sudden, all of the UK trade frameworks just end. That’s close to a catastrophic result and people even speculate this could result in food shortages in the country, though I’m not certain quite how serious those predictions are.
So basically the whole British state is kind of stuck, saddled with a mandate to leave the EU but unable to do so. Any verdict on Theresa May’s ministry has to start with the realization that her mandate was basically impossible to carry out. But even with that reality it’s hard to imagine she could have come up with a more inept, embarrassing and nationally humiliating way to approach the problem. I don’t know if May’s is the worst ministry in the last two centuries of British history but it’s unquestionably the most ridiculous.
One part of the current impasse is tied to the British parliamentary system itself. The UK system is one based on fairly tight party discipline. Unlike in the US, on most votes party members have to vote with their party. It’s very different from the US system. Because of this the system works best when the parties divide over major issues of the day and litigate big national questions on that basis. Here though both parties are internally divided. Brexit is mainly an aspiration of the right. But a lot of Labour MPs are in districts that voted for Brexit. So that doesn’t provide an obvious solution. Ideally, one party would coalesce against Brexit and the other oppose. And if you can’t work it out, you call a snap election and put it to the public. But it’s not clear that that would resolve anything.
The obvious solution here is just to not do Brexit, at least for lack of any other viable option. It’s an obvious as the solution to be stuck in a brown paper back is just to back out of the bag. It seems to be impossible for the British political system to accomplish. The impact seems at best bad and possibly ruinous. From the outside at least, calling the referendum was a mistake. The result of the referendum was a mistake. And it’s just time to admit that and move on.
Again, at least my understanding of the constitutional particularities is that Parliament is not bound by the results of the election. So in theory the whole thing can be called off. The probably is that neither political party is willing or able to get behind that. There are growing calls for a second referendum. Polls suggest Brexit would likely lose on the second attempt. But at least from my read of the polls, it’s not like that’s a certainty by any means.
So that’s where it is. Theresa May is not begging the EU for yet another delay. She’s now reduced to asking opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn for help to move past the impasse. It’s a complete failure both of the political parties and the political architecture of the British state.