Since June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom has been confronting a substantial task to leave the European Union after decades of deep cooperation and integration. Over the last two years, the UK political elite, Tories and Labor alike, has demonstrated an absolute lack of imagination and illustrated the inability to think beyond their wishes of a return to an illusory lost exceptionalism. Three weeks prior the fatidic deadline of March 29, 2019, the British political elite is unable to decide on what is next for the UK, a soft Brexit (based on the agreed terms between the May government and the EU), a hard Brexit (no deal), a revocation of Article 50, or an extension of the Article 50. On March 12, the House of Commons rejected the government’s deal, followed on March 13 by a rejection of a no-deal Brexit paving the way for a potential request for a delay.
A delay for what? And towards what outcome? The UK and EU agreed back on November 14, 2018 on two documents: the agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the Joint Political Declaration on the framework of future relationship. One of the most contentious points for the UK in the withdrawal agreement is the third Protocol concerning Ireland and North Ireland known as “backstop,” agreeing to create an EU-UK single customs territory. The backstop is “an apt paradox for a problem that may not have a solution.” The backstop would keep the UK in both the customs union and the single market until at least 2020 during which Brussels and London would negotiate the terms of a trade relationship.
The Brexit vote was based on a series of lies and political manipulations over the relationship between the UK and the EU. The UK has demonstrated over its decades in the Union its ability to control sovereignty in areas considered of national sovereignty such as the national currency, immigration and judiciary affairs, and so forth. The UK used its opt-out rights in core competencies. The debate prior to the referendum was tailored around immigration/borders, supposedly high cost of the EU membership (money to be utilized to the Health and Human Services), and national prestige allowing the UK to reestablish its grandeur internationally.
Two years later, the illusion of a positive outcome, potentially being a hard Brexit, remains as a possibility. The lack of imagination has been so visible throughout the process and since the end of the UK-EU negotiations. The last four months have exposed the inability of a political elite to think, govern and lead. It has been months of political talks and votes in London with a Prime Minister losing time after time votes on the same document thinking that the outcome of a new vote on a same document could have a different ending. Furthermore, PM May has failed to lead and unite her party, let alone the nation, to agree on the terms of a departure, yet manages to survive no confidence vote and hold her position. This demonstrates another level of political folly. At what point the House of Commons massively rejecting May’s deal, on two occasions, think that keeping the same captain defending the same deal would lead to a different outcome.
In a case of a decision to extend the Article 50 and a reopening of the negotiations, two questions arise. First, are the 27 EU Member States convinced that new rounds of negotiation will lead to a different outcome? PM May said it clearly, “the EU will want to know what use we will make of such an extension.” And second, will the negotiating team from the UK be different a different one bringing new propositions with regards to Northern Ireland to the table? In the current deal, the EU has rightfully protected one of its member states, Ireland, and the core of the Union, the common market. It is quite unimaginable to have the EU undermining one of its members to accommodate one exiting. Furthermore, seeking an extension to the negotiations could poison the debate ahead of the European elections on May 23-26 and require the UK to hold a campaign for the European Parliament elections.
Now the organization of a new referendum on Brexit to put back the decision in the hands of the citizens would send a mix message. The new referendum would be less about democracy and more about the political elite hiding its inabilities to lead and govern behind another popular vote. Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 vote, the government had a mandate and failed to deliver, which has become a common trend across the transatlantic community. After three years of toxic rhetoric, the outcome of new referendum tipping in favor of a remain vote could be damaging in the long-term for domestic and European politics. Can the UK strive back in the EU after this tumultuous period like nothing had ever happened? An optimist could argue that the EU, the 27 capitals and the UK have learnt the lessons being on the edge of a precipice and are willing to move head with substantial reforms by deepening the integration process. Why not?
Theresa May back in 2016 said, “Brexit means Brexit.” The initial understanding was that the UK will be leaving at the end of the two-year period. Today, “Brexit means Brexit” illustrates a total lack of imagination, of leadership and policy-making. Over two years, the UK has been unable to think about its own future outside the EU. How can the UK be in any position of strength in negotiating future relationships with world actors? “forging a new role for Britain in the world”? and to legislate in re-drafting and voting on a new set of rules and laws post-EU? “Brexit means Brexit” has become the mantra of a lost nation.