The aftermath of the United Kingdom’s general election has seen the country plunge into political crisis. Her “strong and stable” aura and hard-earned reputation for competence irreparably shattered, Theresa May is barely managing to hang on as prime minister with help from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. And larger problems loom: Brexit negotiations with the European Union are due to start in a week, and the political chaos has forestalled the emergence of a widespread consensus around what negotiating position Britain should take.
In this, some have seen silver linings: Perhaps Brexit can be somehow averted, perhaps May will be forced to back down from the hard-Brexit line she took during the campaign, perhaps the last twelve months of British politics were just a particularly tumultuous bad dream. Typical of this magical thinking is Roger Cohen’s latest piece in the New York Times:
An inept campaign saw May promising “strong and stable” government so often it became a joke. Britain, on the eve of a momentous negotiation that will define the lives of the youth who never wanted “Brexit,” now has the opposite: weak and wobbly government. This will mean that May has to compromise more; hence a softer departure from the Union, if there’s enough political coherence even for that. Those who cling, as I do, to the faint hope that Brexit will collapse under the weight of its folly have been given a fillip; this is not over.
This line of argument is simple and enticing, full of the hope that Brexit can be avoided or fudged without the anti-democratic mess of a second referendum. But it’s incorrect in two fundamental respects.
First, it gets domestic politics backward. May’s slim majority in Parliament — in fact not a majority at all without the votes of the DUP — means she will have to lean toward the center, the argument goes; the Tory MPs who never believed in the wisdom of a hard Brexit in the first place will find their voices magnified, their leverage increased. But this cuts both ways: The hardline Euroskeptic fringe stands as good a chance of accruing political relevance in the coming months as the moderate Tory fringe. A vote is a vote, and all of them are valuable in a majority this small. Insofar as May will need to placate both the moderates and the radicals, a tack to the political center seems unlikely.
Nor should we expect any degree of moderation based on the results of the election. Only one party, the Liberal Democrats, supported a second referendum on EU membership, and it saw its vote share slightly decrease. Labour largely demurred on the question during the referendum, thanks in no small part to Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left disdain for what he views (and what the pre-Tony Blair Labour party viewed) as a capitalist conspiracy to impede the progress of socialism. Now Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have affirmed that Labour supports exiting the single market and customs union — the core of a hard Brexit. British youth may have flocked in droves to Labour as a means of expressing their dissatisfaction with Brexit, but the party’s leaders seem not to care.
This is to say that, though remaining in the single market and customs union may seem economically wise, there is no political will to do so among Britain’s leaders. If a soft Brexit is to occur, it must be driven primarily by non-domestic forces.
Which brings us to the second problem with the soft-Brexit thesis: that Brexit is no longer a specifically British phenomenon. From the moment that May triggered Article 50, formally notifying the European Union of Britain’s intent to leave, Brexit became as much a European project as a British one. Barring Britain from the single market and the customs union while demanding it pay an astronomical “divorce bill” on its way out the door is just about the only course of action the other 27 EU countries can agree on at this point.
Though remaining in the single market and customs union may seem economically wise, there is no political will to do so among Britain’s leaders.
More important still, that’s the position of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the leaders of the great-power axis eager to reinvigorate the European project and shape the Continent’s future. Macron was elected to the French presidency in May after promising to cure the terminal sclerosis of French politics and reform the EU into a truly federalist body. He and Merkel know this is a task more easily accomplished with Britain outside the union than inside it. Britain has, after all, traditionally frustrated federalist dreams: It refused to adopt the Euro at the beginning of the millennium, viewed talk of an EU army with rampant skepticism, and often complained of the strictures imposed by the European Court of Justice. With Britain in the union and the concept of national sovereignty intact, the federalist project would always remain unrealized. The fact of Brexit and the continent’s worries about President Donald Trump have in a roundabout way reinvigorated the European project: After years of economic turmoil and doubts over the future of integration, Europeans now feel like they have something to fight for. Without Britain holding matters up, federalist reform can proceed unencumbered, Germany and France pulling their fellow countries along whether they like it or not.
The core members of the EU now favor hard Brexit both as a means of positively reconstructing Europe and as a powerful warning to members who would consider following Britain’s lead. A clear, coherent, forceful signal that the price of exit is nothing less than severe economic disruption could serve to blunt the political momentum of the Marine Le Pens and Viktor Orbans of the world. As Macron and Merkel seek to institute their long-awaited reforms, the presence of a perpetually tumultuous, economically depressed Britain on the fringes of the European continent might help encourager les autres.
And in game-theory terms, the election changes little. The Brexit negotiations were always going to be imbalanced — Britain could only have so much leverage against the overwhelming economic and political might of the EU Brussels held all the cards before the election, and it continues to hold them today. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, cares about the EU’s interests, not Britain’s, and he will act accordingly.
The prognosis for Brexit has changed in one crucial respect, though: The probability of Britain’s leaving the union without a deal in place must be higher now than before the election. May’s slim majority means she must carefully navigate between numerous factions within her party and without; this only increases the difficulty of arriving at a consensus negotiating position that can command a majority in the House of Commons and pass through the House of Lords unscathed. Moreover, it increases the probability of ongoing chaos in domestic politics, which seems likely to prove a distraction from the business of negotiation. The clock is already ticking; in March 2019, it will expire. The election’s result has eaten away at the chances of performing the hard political work necessary before that point.
All of this is to say that the case for a soft Brexit resulting from the election is a weak one. At least as far as its leaders are concerned — and excepting the DUP’s preference for an open Irish border — the U.K. itself has little appetite for a soft Brexit. Neither does the EU In the coming months, May will find herself trying to chart a narrow path between her party’s moderates and its radicals. Navigating the ship of state through that perilous passage will be difficult. Britain should brace itself for a crash.