Kicking the Can Down the Road – Again

A mismanaged Brexit may even lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom was supposed to leave the European Union on March 29th, 2019. Then, possibly, on April 12th. Right now, the latest deadline for a soft, that is, negotiated Brexit, and a hard, that is, no deal Brexit is October 31st. However, the bookies in London accept bets for later dates, as well as for a no-leave scenario. Anything goes, which is rather sad given the huge importance of any Brexit for both the U.K. and the EU. The great majority of the people in the U.K. – and possibly in the EU, too – are upset about the political elites in Britain and the EU alike. They are seen, with justice, as negotiating in bad faith or as being incompetent or both. The sad reality is that the U. K. does not have a Winston Churchill or even a Margaret Thatcher, while Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are not Charles de Gaulle and Helmut Kohl, respectively, either. It is the misfortune of Britain and the EU that at this critical juncture in the history of Europe both have to put up with, if at all, mediocre leaders – while the U.S., as the single most important outside influencer, and an European power in various ways, cannot boast of having six wise men, who created the postwar order (using Walter Isaacson’s title). It would be a Godsend if only there were one such person in Washington, D.C., but the Americans are also rather short of political geniuses.

Plenty to take the blame

There are several people on both sides of the English Channel who can rightfully be blamed for the current dead-end street in the Brexit process. British Prime Minister David Cameron misjudged the sentiments of the people when, basically, he believed that he would able to placate the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party because in a referendum over the Brexit, the Remainers would have a majority. Then, PM Theresa May forced a snap election in the hope that the Tories would get an even more comfortable majority than before (she was mistaken), and triggered the two-year process without adequate preparation for negotiations. The Brussels bureaucrats disregarded some of the legitimate grievances of large segments of the British electorate, including the migrant issue and, above all, they were pushing for closer cooperation, a. k. a. centralization of the EU with the ultimate goal of creating a federal United States of Europe – the idea is an anathema even for many pro-EU voters in the U.K. (and elsewhere in Europe). Then, the default position of Brussels was to make Brexit as unpleasant for the British as possible lest other member states should start thinking of following the British on their way out of an overcentralized and over-bureaucratized EU. Meanwhile, in Britain, Theresa May’s government has had to fight a two-front war: one against its implacable Brexiteers centered around such major politicians in the Conservative Party as Boris Johnson and David Rees-Mogg; while the other is against an obstructionist opposition, especially the Labour Party, which, ironically, is led by the Eurosceptic and hard-left Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s bottom line is remaining in the customs union; on balance, this solution may bring economic benefits but it would result in a situation, which was aptly described by Boris Johnson who said that if someone does not sit at the table, then he/she is part of the menu.

Brexit | Photo by

Brexit vs. UK unity

A compromise idea in this question, that is a limited period of time for British continued membership in the European customs union might be applied only to Northern Ireland in order to avoid recreating a hard border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland has been vehemently opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP suspects such a solution is a potential first step of detaching Ulster from the rest of the U.K. DUP leader Arlene Foster has a very strong negotiating position in Westminster: it’s only with the votes of the DUP that the Conservatives can cobble together a razor thin majority against the various opposition parties running from the Labour Party through the Liberal Democrats to the Scottish National Party. The Brexit referendum brought a number of fault (half-hidden) lines within the U.K. to the surface. The most spectacular one was that the majority of the voters (roughly two-thirds) both in Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain within the EU. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been talking more and more frequently about another referendum on independence (the last one in 2014 was defeated by a 55-45 majority), while Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald ominously warned of dire consequences in case of a hard Brexit – and consequently a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This thinly veiled reference to a potential revival of sectarian violence made, among others, the EU leaders declare that it is the vested interest of the EU to keep the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in place and to prevent the outbreak of clashes between the unionists and the republicans in Ulster. In sum, a mismanaged Brexit may even lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom; however, the Scots should think twice before voting for independence (in case there is one in a foreseeable future) because it may happen that they fall between two stools, if they cannot join (remain in) the EU right after a majority vote for independence. (Things are further complicated that such a referendum can only be held with the approval of the British Parliament.)

A damaging delay

Hard Brexit is not in the interest of the majority of the people in the U.K. and the EU, as the successive new deadlines illustrate. Besides the talks in front of the public eyes, there must be several different (back) channels between the U.K. and the EU, as well as between the Conservatives and Labour. The British voters are hugely dissatisfied with the political elites, though – of course – the Conservatives as the governing party bear more responsibility for the stalemate than the rather obstructionist Labour Party. Nevertheless, the latter should also be careful what it longs for: a general election or a second referendum would force them, too, to come down firmly on one side or the other, and they will not have the luxury of shouting from the sidelines as they have been doing in the past months. So far, there are only a few who have left the two major parties, but internal dissent may create havoc with both. The outcome of the Brexit may as well seal party strength in the U.K. for years to come, and – likewise – affect substantially the position of the U.K. and the EU in the world. Delays without end is one of the worst options; this volatility is being used by rival power centers at the expense of the two parties involved in this breakup of a marriage of sorts. 

Tamás Magyarics

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