More than three years after the United Kingdom voted, by a narrow margin, to leave the European Union (EU), Brexit has claimed the scalp of two Prime Ministers. Should Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party fare poorly in the upcoming general election scheduled for December 12, he could be the third PM to exit. The biggest casualty, however, has been clarity about the country’s future as Britain continues to rehash the tactical battles of the 2016 referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU, the destination of 45% of the U.K.’s exports and the source of 53% of its imports, including half of its food supplies.
The U.K. is now a country more divided than ever into tribes of ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’, divisions that cut across traditional political lines. At one extreme are the most ardent Remainers, who would like to cancel Brexit altogether, whether through a second referendum or by voting in a government that will revoke the process of leaving the EU. They refuse in principle to consider a future outside the EU. Gathered at the opposite pole are the hardcore Brexiteers who wish to see Britain cut all its ties with the EU on exit day, in order to start creating new trading relationships with a clean slate. Both sides are, consciously or otherwise, perpetuating a dangerous fallacy that lies at the heart of what ails Brexit: the notion that Brexit is an event, a one-off.
Brexit, however, is not an event, but a process of dissociation and reassociation. Mr. Johnson is rallying the faithful by urging to country to ‘get Brexit done.’ His slogan plays to the sentiments of the Brexiteers, for whom Brexit has become totemic of sovereignty to be upheld and defended at all costs. For too long, the Brexiteer argument goes, the U.K. has been subservient to ever-expanding EU rules and regulations. Brexiteers believe that a democratic state ought to be able to set its own rules about, among other areas, food standards, pet well-being, road safety, banking regulations, and, most importantly, immigration limits.
A process, not an event
However, Britain’s exit from the EU, from the ever-closer ties that have bound this island nation to its continent since it joined the European Communities (the EU’s predecessor) in 1973, is not an event but a process. These, and many other regulations, will not just disappear overnight once Britain leaves the EU. They are written into British law, and Parliament will need to decide on whether and how to replace them. Brexit is closer to the amputation of a healthy limb than to tooth extraction. There will be blood vessels to cauterise, a prosthetic limb to be fitted and adjusted, and a phantom limb to be contended with. And yes, movement after the amputation will become a little more challenging.
Brexit, then, is a great unravelling. The fact that two Prime Ministers have tried and failed to negotiate an acceptable withdrawal agreement — something that will govern U.K.-EU relations until the two entities can agree on a new trading relationship — is a testament to the complexity of this uncoupling. In mountaineering terms, if the summit is a constellation of new trading relationships with different countries, then Theresa May and Boris Johnson have failed to get Britain even to base camp, the point at which there is agreed common ground to begin negotiations with the country’s largest trading partner. Further, through the EU, Britain is currently part of trading arrangements with about 70 other countries. After Brexit, the U.K. will need to replace these with bilateral pacts.
Getting from the base camp to the summit, then, is going to be exponentially more complex. As British delegations set forth to negotiate new trade deals with other countries, they will confront tough questions about what Britain can offer to say, U.S., India and China. What the U.K. is willing to concede is likely to be equally difficult. Would London really be willing to open up British markets to American meat or allow American pharmaceuticals free access to its National Health Service (NHS)? Having defended its right to control immigration through Brexit, will the U.K. be willing to grant more visas to Indian workers? How much access will Britain be comfortable with for Chinese goods and technology?
Even if a withdrawal agreement is ratified by Parliament, allowing Britain to exit the EU (this latest extension ends on January 31, 2020), that exit will only serve as the starting point of a new process of creating alternative trading arrangements for Britain. It is believed that Mr. Johnson models himself on Winston Churchill. It might, therefore, be apt to recall Churchill’s words at London’s Mansion House after Britain won its first battle against German forces at El Alamein in 1942, almost three years after the war had begun. After three years of defeats, this victory offered hope. However, Churchill cautioned, “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Withdrawing from the EU will be the start of a long process of redefining Britain. No other country has yet disentangled itself from a trading relationship with its largest trade partner, even in such times of protectionist tendencies that appear to be affecting the desire for future trading relationships.
Unity of the U.K.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Brexit is increasingly becoming an English obsession that is threatening the unity of the United Kingdom. Scotland and Northern Ireland (the former by a decisive margin) voted to remain in the EU in 2016. Though Wales voted narrowly to leave, the sentiment appears to be shifting with the main Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, now putting its weight unambiguously behind Remain. Meanwhile, divisions over Brexit have fuelled Scottish nationalism, with the Scottish Nationalist Party demanding another independence referendum. In a 2014 referendum on independence, Scotland had voted 55% to 45% to remain in the U.K., primarily because remaining in the union gave it access to the EU.
Against these fissiparous tendencies, the U.K. is gearing up for its second general election since the Brexit referendum. Far from finding any common ground, the tribes of Leavers and Remainers are drawing further apart. Mr. Johnson’s attempts to portray that Parliament is stymieing the ‘will of the people’ by blocking Brexit has vitiated the political atmosphere, with more and more MPs reporting abuse and threats from the public. Neither the Conservatives’ glib ‘get Brexit done’, nor the Labour Party’s apparent decision to shift the focus away from Brexit will serve to bridge the widening differences in this country. Yet, opposing Brexit as a smaller party will be challenging: though the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru have come together in an anti-Brexit pact, they have nothing else in common. It could be that the malaise of Brexit will infect the results of the general election by denying any party a decisive victory. If so, the deadlock over the battle for Britain’s future will continue. Rather than looking forward with hope, this appears to be an election that will look back with anger.
Priyanjali Malik is a London-based independent researcher focussing on politics and nuclear security in South Asia