The Corner


Heading for a Pet Sematary Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, December 2017. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Whatever view you take on the Brexit debate, it is quite clear that, with barely more than two months to go until the U.K. quits the EU (legally that is the default position), no one really knows what is going to happen.

In many respects, the current shambles are the natural continuation of a descent into self-destruction begun when Theresa May set the clock ticking (by starting the formal exit procedure) without any clear notion of what kind of Brexit she wanted, a decision that, among other obvious flaws, handed almost all the cards in the subsequent negotiations to Brussels.

May then compounded this error by making clear that she wanted a form of “hard” Brexit unconnected to political, legal or economic realities (not that she put it that way . . . ). The hole in which Britain now finds itself is one that May, assisted (sometimes merely passively) by a curious ragbag of miscreants from Jacob Rees-Mogg on the Right to Jeremy Corbyn on the Left, has dug. She deserves no sympathy. Britain, on the other hand, does.

Over the last year or so, one of the most astute observers of the mess that has, quite unnecessarily, been made of Brexit has been Sir Ivan Rogers, the former U.K.“ambassador” to the EU. I assume he would have voted for Remain, but he has long been known for the realism with which he looked at the operation of the Brussels apparat.  He is no starry-eyed Europhile.

The Spectator has now published Rogers’s latest speech. Like its recent predecessors, it makes for uncomfortable reading, and should be read in full, right down to its last grim sentence, but a couple of extracts are worth noting for now.

Rogers rightly has harsh words for those who, against all available evidence, have been arguing that a variant of the Norwegian or (to my mind) somewhat less satisfactory Swiss option, do not represent a “proper” Brexit:

We are left with the bizarre spectacle of Brexiteers, many of whom used to argue that exiting to Norwegian or Swiss style destinations would be a vast improvement on remaining in the EU, because these were vibrant Parliamentary democracies whose peoples had bravely spurned European political integration in favour of free trading relationships from outside, arguing that if the U.K. now “escaped” only to such a destination, it would be a terrible betrayal.

In Rogers’s view, claiming that “the integrationist ratchet which Eurosceptics believed was pulling [the U.K.] in to where [it] did not want to go — a perfectly arguable case, incidentally — applies equally to Norway and Switzerland . . . is absurd”.

Quite so.

But much of Rogers’s ire is reserved for those calling for a “no deal” Brexit (or, if you prefer euphemisms, the “WTO option”).  He is careful to avoid some of the more alarmist predictions made by the Remain camp but explains at some length why this sad little scrap of a plan (my choice of words not his) will not deliver what its advocates are claiming (particularly when it comes to the U.K.’s critical services sector).

He then goes on to explain (again at some length) why it will seriously undermine the U.K.’s negotiating position with the EU in future.

An extract:

 “No deal” has, let’s be honest, become just the latest canvas for Brexiteer dreams. None of this has to be true. It just has to sound compelling and reassuring to people.

When we assured by the former Foreign Secretary [Boris Johnson] that “ample, balanced and pragmatic mini deals” will be prepared in a jiffy once we have just said “no” to the current deal, he knows full well it isn’t true. It’s just a pale repetition of the same tired old rhetorical tropes we heard from him in 2016, 17, 18.

And that EU common position post a collapse of the Withdrawal Agreement will not, I can assure you, be one begging for the immediate start of FTA talks. It will be a calm repetition that there is readiness to open FTA talks the moment the UK makes good on its promises on the [Irish] backstop and money.

Quite what Brexit will look like after all this has been completed is anyone’s guess. My guess? Some sort of Pet Sematary Brexit, the product of an understandable enough objective twisted and distorted into something that may have very bleak consequences indeed.

One of those, I suspect, will sooner or later, be the election of a British government dominated by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, a friend of neither democracy, nor NATO, nor the United States.

Americans also need to be very concerned about the direction that Brexit is taking.

Tick tock.

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