Making Sense of the Brexit Mess
Brexit has become British politics. For almost three years, it has consumed, confounded, and humiliated Britain’s political class. For political scientists it has been fascinating and infuriating. Rarely are we given the chance to study a country, one as accessible and well-documented as Britain, as it passes through a critical juncture that will change its unity, identity, society, political economy, and place in the world. Generations of historians, political scientists, economists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, and lawyers are going to be kept busy as ‘Brexperts’ picking over the Brexit case study.
This all stems from David Cameron’s failed gamble to, as he put it, ‘settle the European question once and for all’ through an in/out referendum. What some thought would be an event or a single vote has turned out to be as, as I outline in my textbook Understanding Brexit: A Concise Introduction, a series of overlapping processes and debates taking place at and involving multiple actors in Britain, the remaining EU, the rest of Europe, and around the world. These processes are also a mix of time-limited and open-ended.
So far Britain has made a mess of almost all of those processes, not least that of negotiating its EU exit. When in March 2017 Theresa May, backed by a recent vote in the House of Commons, triggered Article 50, the EU’s withdrawal clause that provides two years to negotiate a withdrawal, few appear to have been fully cognizant of the scale of the process that was beginning, or how woefully unprepared for that process Britain was.
Two years later and Britain looks lost, diminished, and is constantly living on the brink of a ‘no deal’ Brexit whereby it would leave the EU resetting to zero most of its relations with its largest trading, political, and social partners. It is a testament to the mess Britain is in that such an exit remains the default outcome, but is one only a few want. It’s why Theresa May, who once argued that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ looks set to request a long extension to the two-year departure timeframe. No wonder only 7% of Britons think their country has handled Brexit well. How did this come to pass? I’d summarize it through the six I’s: ignorance, influence, institutions, incoherence, identity, and isolation.
Brexit has revealed a shocking level of ignorance about the EU amongst many, including many of Britain’s political elite. For decades, the EU has been an easy punch bag for politicians. Some attacks have been justified. More often, they were based on nonsense and lies. It has left Britain in a pitifully ill-informed position from which to negotiate with an organization renowned for being complex and a tough negotiator. British ministers have been so bad at understanding the EU that officials have made special efforts to record their concerns to protect themselves against future official inquiries or the judgement of history.
Ignorance of the EU has been fueled by a disdain, arrogance, and high-handedness on the part of some British politicians. That would be understandable if Britain’s power vis-a-vis the EU was one of equals, but it is not. Britain’s confused approach to Brexit in part reflects denial at the country’s inability to shape negotiations.
Britain remains a formidable power. But in trade negotiations, as in international relations more generally, size matters. And the fact is that the EU is much bigger than Britain. British politicians can talk all they want about the EU needing to concede to Britain because on leaving, it will become the EU’s leading trading partner. That is certainly a card Britain has to play, but the EU is worth more to Britain’s economy than Britain’s economy is to the EU. If this is a game of poker, then Theresa May has held her cards close to her chest not because she has a strong hand but because she is unprepared to admit how weak the hand is.
The highest level of British politics and decision-making still runs through a House of Commons based on a majoritarian system – the Westminster model – of winner takes all. The political DNA of Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, and so many other MPs leads them to think that governing is based on single party government with largely unchecked power. The idea of consensus politics, of coalitions and publicly seeking cross-party cooperation remains alien.
While Britain did have a coalition government from 2010-2015, it did not shift feelings that coalition or cooperation are a sign of weakness. This entire model of governing has been under strain for a long time thanks to constitutional change and the slow emergence of multi-party politics. But talk of cooperation to overcome the divisions wrought by a referendum (which in itself has pitted popular against parliamentary legitimacy) that saw the country split down the middle, still leads to the extreme comparisons of emergency governments formed to face the two World Wars or the Great Depression.
Ignorance and ill-informed attacks on the EU have left Britain incapable of identifying what it wants. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ proclaimed May on becoming prime minister in 2016. That might have been lampooned, but since June 2016 British politics has been a fight to define what Brexit should mean. That fight won’t end until a British government faces the inevitable choices necessary to settle the matter. Instead, British ministers and politicians have pursued proposals that collapse as soon as they are scrutinized. Anyone familiar with the question of what to do about the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will know how incoherent and unprepared Britain has been.
Brexit debates often revolve around questions over Britain’s withdrawal and a new relationship with the EU. But that relationship is a means to an end – the end being what sort of country Britain wants to be. Scratch the surface of Brexit and this is what you find underneath. People are either angry at the current setup or as confused or ignorant of it as they are of the EU.
I’ve often found that explaining Brexit involves helping fellow Britons understand our country and the way it is governed and run. A few brave souls have suggested that one way out of the current impasse is a UK-wide debate about the constitution, political imbalances and economic model. That seems unlikely, but if you want to define a good Brexit you’d be better off exploring such an idea than focusing on some new UK-EU relationship.
Finally, Brexit has been difficult for Britain because it has brought about a degree of isolation unknown to British policy makers. The country’s internal political problems, incoherence, and aloofness in negotiating has exasperated even its closest allies, such as the Dutch. For most of the post-war era British foreign policy has been about trying to avoid difficult choices, especially over the relative prioritization to be given to Europe, the US, or the rest of the world.
Brexit has sent this balancing act into free-fall. Instead of trying to lead on such questions as the future of NATO, Britain has been sat in the corner, stunned, passive, almost MIA. That, in turn, has created a dilemma for the rest of the EU. They want Brexit to stop, but not by throwing Britain out. If Britain leaves, then it must be on its own accord. Any sense of expulsion would fuel Euroscepticism elsewhere in the EU and poison relations with Britain. It is doubtful, however, to see how relations can improve. Britain’s experience of negotiating with the EU have been one of constant defeat. That reflects Britain’s own mistakes. Further such negotiations will likely be corrosive to British pro-Europeanism because it is inevitable that the country will be repeatedly humbled by a bigger and more powerful EU.
Dr. Tim Oliver is a Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University London’s Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance. His research focuses on Brexit, British and European politics, as well as international relations and security. He is the author of Understanding Brexit: A Concise Introduction (2018) and editor of Europe’s Brexit: EU Perspectives on Britain’s Vote to Leave (2018).