In the minds of its most fervent backers, Brexit was meant to mark the dawning of a new era for the United Kingdom, an unshackling from the straitjacket of the European Union, Britain’s glorious re-emergence as a global, cosmopolitan nation in the latter days of its golden Elizabethan era.
Perhaps at the time of the referendum that was not an unreasonable view. But it all looks so different now. The warning signs are piling up, and there is disaster looming on the horizon: If something in British government does not change, it seems increasingly clear that Britain is headed for at best an exit on unfavorable terms and at worst a cataclysmic crashing out of the EU in March 2019.
The muddle seems to infect everything; on a weekly basis, now, the embarrassment rolls in. Last week, the latest iteration: Chris Wilkins — Prime Minister Theresa May’s director of strategy and the man responsible for much of her vision for Brexit — resigned from his post in Downing Street. It is a worrying sign on two levels, suggesting both that the future within the May administration is a fruitless one and that the administration itself is increasingly bereft of the strategic vision essential to a strong negotiating position. Wilkins is only the latest to leave; Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s co-chiefs of staff, left in June after the prime minister’s woeful performance in the general election.
This is emblematic of a larger trend. The clock on the Brexit negotiations, two years in length, began ticking in March, but even at this advanced point it seems that the British government has little vision for what an eventual deal should entail or even what its negotiating stance should look like at the moment. Brexit secretary David Davis’s much-mocked session in Brussels earlier this month betrayed this fact: His European counterpart, Michel Barnier, had in front of him reams of paper detailing the EU’s stances on all sorts of minutiae, while the table in front of Davis was stark and bare.
It was, I suppose, a mildly encouraging development that May has convened a so-called business council with which she will consult from time to time on all things Brexit-related. It was significantly less encouraging that this council’s first meeting took place in mid July, and that even then it was concerned mostly with the general outlines of Britain’s strategic vision for Brexit. This was a matter that should have been taken up months — even a year — ago, not well after negotiations had begun. The business leaders’ suggestions were reasonable enough, focusing mainly on avoiding the Brexit “cliff edge” that awaits the country if no deal is agreed before the March 2019 deadline and urging May to negotiate some sort of transition agreement to cover the two or three years after the exit. But that this is still being discussed at so late an hour reflects a worrying truth: Britain does not, in a very important sense, know what it is doing.
It’s easy enough to distribute the blame for this. It predominantly falls on Theresa May herself. Not only did she fritter away two valuable months on an unnecessary general election that has done nothing but undermine her own viability as leader and throw the country’s politics into turmoil and uncertainty. It also now seems that she produced little of consequence in the months she spent in the premiership before that. She attained office after David Cameron’s resignation last summer through her reputation for diligence and competence; that sort of personality was exactly what the country needed at that moment. But her mishandling of the general election and the slow-motion Brexit catastrophe have altered that perception, and the country increasingly seems to understand that it is not in good hands. Blame might be apportioned elsewhere as well, but May must take the bulk of it.
The rosy-eyed version of Brexit — in which Britain negotiates an amicable deal with its European counterparts and through the magic of bilateral free-trade deals weathers the exit with little economic damage, all while reclaiming control over immigration and parliamentary sovereignty — is no longer on the table, and perhaps it never truly was in the first place. There are thus two realistic scenarios for Britain’s eventual exit from the EU.
The first is cataclysmic. This is the “no deal” option, in which Britain and the EU fail to arrive at an agreement by March 2019 and Britain simply crashes out of the union with no parachute in place. Britain’s trade with the EU would revert to World Trade Organization rules; a hard border would return to Ireland; goods would pile up at Dover and Calais and chaos would reign as confused agents apply customs checks and tariffs to which they are thoroughly unaccustomed; perhaps even flights between the U.K. and EU operated by British airlines would be unable to run. That scenario is bad enough that — surely — avoiding it would inspire sufficient action to negotiate some sort of deal, even a relatively punitive one.
More likely, then, is something along the lines of the deal Greece negotiated with its creditors in the summer of 2015: a harsh, political thing, full of animus and mutual distaste, inevitably concluded in a bleary-eyed session in the middle of the night just before the deadline. (The EU, in that respect, has an unfortunate tendency to resemble a lazy college student.) Britain’s interminable debate over its own negotiating stance points in that direction — the deadline may loom, but it always seems curiously off in the distance somewhere, never really meaning anything until the moment it hits. In the meantime the political class can re-run the debates it has already litigated time and time again while the level of toxicity and vitriol in the political climate makes a rational consensual policy only more difficult to attain. Eventually the sheer imminence of circumstance will force Britain’s leaders — whoever they are by that point — to adopt some position, and to recognize that the EU really did hold all the leverage after all.
But it will not be an amicable divorce. If Britain wishes to avoid either outcome, it should make every effort to cease its soul-searching and establish a firm negotiating position as quickly as possible. Otherwise it will continue its drift towards an outcome nobody desires.
— Noah Daponte-Smith is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of modern history and politics at Yale University.