Last Friday, Parliament signed Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. This Friday, Britain will leave the European Union. . . . You read that correctly: Britain will leave the European Union. After all the chaos, rancor, and fearmongering of the past three years, Johnson’s sizable majority will finally manage to “get Brexit done” — as they promised. But it’s anti-climactic. Because Brexit is only beginning.
At this point, it is worth recalling what all the fuss was about: The Leave campaign of 2016 was fought and won on a promise to “take back control.” This was in part a question of national identity. And also, one of sovereignty.
After two failed attempts to do so, Britain in 1973 joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC). The condition of freedom of movement resulted in mass immigration, which, by 2010, saw the British population increase by 4.5 million people per decade. The failure of politicians to engage seriously with the problems associated with this — offering only vague promises to do with “multiculturalism” — alienated especially working-class communities. However, while much attention has been given to immigration, other political concerns have proved just as important.
Anti-EU feeling had been growing for years, on both the left and right of British politics, and for a variety of reasons. After the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the EEC became the European Union, the name change signifying the entity’s transformation from an economic to a political body. Of course, one of the ironies was that it was unpopular on both the left and the right of British politics: the former suspecting the EU of peddling crony capitalism, while the latter was concerned it was really a thinly veiled socialist superstate.
It is quite incredible, given these trends, that David Cameron was confident that Britain would vote to remain in the European Union. After losing that gamble, he resigned. The past three years of total shambles, much of it avoidable, has been the result. What should have happened is that a pro-Leave leader take over as leader of the Conservative party. Instead, Boris Johnson, betrayed by Michael Gove, spoiled his chances. Then, the unlikeliest leader of all, Theresa May, took over. May attempted to borrow the bombastic rhetoric of the Leave campaign with short-lived promises that “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but she had neither the conviction or the charisma to back it up.
May was unable to rally even her own government. So it’s hardly surprising that in Brussels she failed to stand up for Britain’s interests. The European Union refused any negotiations before the triggering of Article 50, the clause of the Lisbon Treaty that would begin the two-year countdown to Brexit. Having triggered Article 50 in March 2017, May held a snap election in June of the same year. That proved to be the biggest mistake of her premiership. The polls were disastrously wrong, and the result was a majority hanging by a thread: the thread being the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. That significantly altered May’s negotiating power, placing new emphasis on the way free trade (one of the key promises of Vote Leave) might affect the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
With additional pressure from the EU and Ireland, the issue of the “backstop” arose. How could the U.K., on leaving the customs union and single market, avoid the necessity of a hard border in Northern Ireland? One suggestion, approved by the EU and presented to the Commons by Theresa May, was that the U.K. could also be covered under a backstop, that there would be no regulatory discrepancy with Northern Ireland. That did not sit well the Brexiteers, since it severely restricted global trade, and especially since there was no indication as to when that arrangement would (or even if it could) end.
Though May managed to withstand the resignation of dozens of MPs, as well as a failed leadership coup prompted by the European Research Group (which is ardently pro-Brexit), Parliament was in a total deadlock. May’s deal failed not once, not twice, but three times. She indicated her intention to resign in May. Owing to the quirks of the Tory leadership race, Boris Johnson’s popularity at the grassroots ensured his takeover, and he soon sought — then got — a general election, which would deliver the Tories their biggest majority since Thatcher and break the deadlock.
Naturally, the dynamics of the Irish problem changed as Parliament itself changed. Johnson’s deal was markedly better than May’s, allowing for free trade and providing border checks in the Irish Sea to resolve the backstop issue. The EU provisionally agreed to this deal in October. And the new Parliament ratified the deal in January.
But the petty squabbling is set to continue. Even the introduction of a new Brexit-themed coin has upset the metropolitan Remain voters. And, far more seriously, there are new concerns for the union. What will become of Northern Ireland? And what will happen with Scotland, where, in December, the number of Tory seats fell to six, from 13 in 2017, while the Scottish Nationalist Party secured 45 percent of the vote and gained 13 seats?
It is no surprise that a new poll has found that three in five people are unhappy with Britain’s political system. After all, as the story of Brexit continues to unfold, the only real certainty is uncertainty.