You Brexit, You Buy It

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium

However much both sides want to behave like grown-ups, the arguments over withdrawal soon turn into squabbles.

November-December 2017

On March 28, the day before Brexit officially began, a very British row broke out—about legs. It was about women’s legs, to be more precise. Just hours before Theresa May invoked Article 50, formally triggering Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the Daily Mail, an anti-EU tabloid, published on its front page a picture of May, sitting next to Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister. The two women were wearing knee-length dresses. “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it?” barked the headline. The Mail’s mild exercise in misogyny caused a furious storm among journalists and politicians. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s leader, declared: “This sexism must be consigned to history.” Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist, added,

it is indicative of what is happening in Brexit Britain. . . . For right-wing Brexiteers, this is a great national awakening . . . they want to turn this country into the drunk man, stumbling around yelling obscenities at everyone, leering at women and shouting racist abuse.

If only that were the case, Brexit would be much more fun. What almost nobody wanted to admit was that the Daily Mail had done the rest of the press a favor. The Legsit brouhaha provided relief from the drudgery of Brexit news. It’s much easier to be excited by sexism than it is to argue about trade tariffs, rebates and sovereign legal jurisdictions. Brexit is important—everybody knows that—but like all divorces, it is also disturbing and at times very boring.

The politics of Brexit are not dull: they are dramatic and disorienting. In Theresa May, Britain has an unpredictable leader. She is pushing ahead with a clean break from the EU ahead of all else, even though she was in favor of remaining. She also stressed, repeatedly, that she would not be calling a general election. Britain needed “a period of stability” following the political earthquake that was the vote to leave the EU, she said. Then, on April 18, she called a general election. “The country is coming together” behind her agenda, she explained, “but Westminster is not.”

Everybody thought she would storm to victory. She didn’t. Before the election on June 8, psephologists had talked about May winning the largest British parliamentary majority since the Second World War. But May proved to be an amazingly bad campaigner—grim-faced, robotic, disconnected. Though she won, just, her victory did nothing to give her the fresh mandate for Brexit she was looking for—quite the opposite. To form a majority government, she has had to enter a rather makeshift coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party. Having projected herself as the “strong and stable” candidate, she now looks weak and hapless. Even the most ardent “Brexiteers” on the right are now concerned that a woman who doesn’t seem to know what she is doing is in charge of the most seismic political shift in Britain’s postwar history.

BEFORE THE election, the Tories were enjoying a strange outbreak of unity. May, a Remainer who had embraced Brexit as the will of the people, seemed to represent a new settlement within the party over a question that had long torn it apart. Labour, meanwhile, seemed hopelessly divided, especially over Europe. Its power base in rich, metropolitan London was passionately Remain, yet the Old Labour heartlands were the most pro-Brexit areas of the country. Corbyn himself appeared desperately torn. He instinctively sympathized with the 35 percent or so of his party that had voted to leave the EU, but he didn’t want his image as a lover of immigrants to be tainted by the nationalism that drove the anti-Europe vote. With his party hamstrung by Brexit, and Corbyn widely ridiculed anyway for being too far to the left of mainstream British opinion, bien-pensant opinion figured Labour for a goner. The smaller, resolutely pro-Remain parties, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, looked destined to thrive. The Liberal Democrats could be the voice of the 48 percent who voted Remain. Meanwhile, the SNP, led by Sturgeon on her sturdy Caledonian calves, was demanding a second Scottish independence referendum—just two years after they narrowly lost the first—on the grounds that a large majority of Scots voted to stay in Europe, and therefore does not want to be part of an independent United Kingdom. Another successful general election for the SNP could have given Sturgeon the momentum she needed to break up the United Kingdom.

But the SNP had a bad election, and the Liberal Democrats experienced no great resurgence. Labour, on the other hand, defied all expectations and nearly won. Corbyn successfully parked the Brexit issue, by pledging allegiance to Brexit. He even forced his MPs to support the triggering of Article 50. But he did not talk about it much on the campaign trail. As May and others went about the country banging on about Brexit, which for all its importance is still quite opaque and intangible, Corbyn spoke to people about schools, hospitals, wages and the wicked rich—in other words, the issues voters care about. His grassroots movement prospered, and Corbynmania briefly infected much of the nation. After the election, for instance, Jeremy Corbyn was greeted with Obama-like adulation at the trendy Glastonbury music festival.

The election was in no way a repudiation of last year’s EU referendum, then, even though many Remainers are eager to portray it as such. On the contrary, four out of five voters voted for Labour and the Tories, parties that are committed to leaving the EU. But the whole subject of what Britain does next is deeply confused and nerve-wracking, and it’s fair to say the British are in something of a Brexit funk.

The rules of the game are a mystery. Nobody really knows how a country extricates itself from the European Union. The EU wasn’t set up to deal with members leaving; the whole idea of the European project, as defined under the Treaty of Rome, is to achieve “ever closer union.” Article 50, the mechanism for a member state to withdraw, was never intended to be used. Giuliano Amato, the former prime minister of Italy and a venerable Eurocrat, has claimed he only added the clause to the European Constitution as a sop to recalcitrant British politicians, because Brits have never been comfortable with the idea of pooling sovereignty with the continent. “My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there, but never used,” he said. “It is like having a fire extinguisher that should never have to be used. Instead, the fire happened.”

The Brexiteers regard Article 50 more as an escape hatch on the great sinking ship that is the European Union. Neither side has much of an idea how the damn thing operates. At first, both Brexiteers and Europhiles hyped Article 50 as a “point of no return.” In the aftermath of the EU referendum on June 23, 2016, triumphant Euroskeptics urged the government to seize the moment, and invoke the clause before the Brussels bureaucrats figured out how to inveigle Britain back into the EU fold. Pro-Europeans—now called Remainers—said that it would be madness to trigger Article 50 without any clear sense of Britain’s future, “the equivalent of jumping off a cliff with an untested parachute,” as one start-up businessman put it. Then Article 50 happened, and the Brexiteers cheered. The Sun projected a vast farewell message—“DOVER & OUT”—on the famous white cliffs of Dover, which face the English Channel. Lots of Remainers changed tune, however. Never mind Article 50, they said, Brexit can still be stopped. Lord Kerr, who claims to have written Article 50, insisted the clause was not intended to be irrevocable. He said Britain could change its mind at any time during the two-year negotiating period.

Amid the confusion, it can be hard to tell who is more delusional: the Brexiteers who think an independent Britain will almost instantly be elevated to great global status again, or the Remainers and the EU officials who can’t accept that Brexit is happening.

WHAT’S INCREASINGLY clear is that there is little room for dialogue—let alone compromise—between Leavers and Remainers, or Theresa May’s government and the EU. The opening exchanges of the Brexit talks showed that while both sides are eager to sound polite, they cannot agree on the process for withdrawal, let alone the terms.

Theresa May has called for “a phased process of implementation,” meaning Britain and the EU would agree a transitional arrangement on trade, customs and immigration while a more permanent free-trade agreement (FTA) is struck. The EU, by contrast, is pushing first for the cost of a “financial settlement”—a.k.a. the Brexit Bill—to be agreed before negotiations can move forward. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s endearingly eccentric president, has said Britain’s exit payment must be sufficiently “salty,” to put off other countries that might be tempted to leave the EU ship. The saline figure being touted by the other twenty-seven EU members is 60 billion euros. That may not sound obscene, considering the larger sums involved, but it is more than enough to generate strong disagreements about who owns what share of the continental silver. Article 50 contains no mention of a severance fee, the Brexiteers point out, and Britain has poured enormous amounts of money into the European project over the years. A paper by the consultants Miles Saltiel and Bob Lyddon, of the policy institute Global Britain, argued that Britain has a right to tens of billions in capital reserves from the European Investment Bank. If anything, they owe us, say the Leavers.

That is the trouble with Britain versus the EU: however much both sides want to behave like grown-ups, the arguments over withdrawal soon turn into squabbles. The British media—pro- and anti-EU—is of course quick to exacerbate any discord. Who wants to read or write about customs practices when one can raise the possibility of war?

Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk initiating Article 50 stressed that Britain’s “decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans” and that “we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.” But Brussels and the Remain press quickly interpreted her repeated emphasis on the importance of cooperation to combat terrorism as aggression. Senior Brussels figures told the Guardian that May had made a “blatant threat” and was treating European lives as “a bargaining chip.” It was as if the prime minister had threatened to release British terrorists and bus them into European capitals.

The EU’s response to Theresa May’s opening Brexit salvo caused an even sillier row over Gibraltar, a small peninsula bordering Spain that has been a British sovereign territory since 1713. Gibraltar is a grotty place: Byron called it “the dirtiest most detestable spot in existence.” Today, it is a haven for tax dodgers and gambling companies, and not much else. Nevertheless, Spain has always resented Britain’s control of “the Rock”—and the EU latched onto that grievance in its so-called “draft guidelines,” the union’s first published response to Brexit. “No agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom,” declared Brussels. Or, as a EU official told the press, “The union will stick up for its members and that means Spain now.”

The British tabloids and some Tories were quick to hit the jingo button in response. The Sun, diplomatic as ever, produced a pullout centerfold poster: “Hands Off Our Rock.” The former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard was wheeled onto Sunday television, where he suggested that Theresa May would be willing to go to war to protect Gibraltar, just as Margaret Thatcher had done for the Falklands.

It was all laughably over the top. Nevertheless, the fallout over Gibraltar proved just how thorny the process of withdrawing from the EU will be. Every minor dispute could be blown into a casus belli. Neither side wants to fight, of course, but the way the word “war” quickly entered the political debate served as a reminder that, for all its problems, the EU has helped guarantee peace since the Second World War.

Any common ground between Brexit Britain and the EU looks vanishingly small. On the Brexit side, everybody agrees that May must be willing to walk away from the negotiating table if the EU proves too obstreperous. That would mean falling back on WTO rules and tariffs for the trade of goods between Europe and Britain—and hoping for the best on the transfer of services, immigration and the manifold issues of legal jurisdiction. Economists and futurologists disagree wildly on what the “WTO option” could mean for Britain, but it seems likely to cause market jitters in the short term.

On the EU side, the twenty-seven other member countries seem resolved to show unity against Britain’s withdrawal. No senior European representatives will explicitly say they want to punish Britain pour decourager les autres. That has to be the EU position, however. The EU, still suffering its own political and economic crisis as a result of the 2008 crash, simply cannot afford to let Britain leave on good terms. To do so would undermine what it calls the “integrity of the union.” In order to protect what they see as Europe’s long-term interest, plenty of Brussels mandarins would be willing to accept the economic pain of freezing Britain out.

According to a detailed report by the Centre for European Reform, there are

three possible outcomes of the Brexit talks: a separation agreement plus an accord on future relations including an FTA; a separation agreement but no deal on future relations, so that Britain has to rely on WTO rules; and neither a separation agreement nor a deal on future relations, so that Britain faces legal chaos and has to rely on WTO rules.

Paralyzing legal complexity seems inevitable. In July, the government put forward its Great Repeal Bill, to assert the supremacy of British law over European law in the future. The bill proposes to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom, and to transfer all EU law into the UK legal system, so that the government can then “amend, repeal and improve” each law as is necessary. If that sounds simple, it shouldn’t: the relationship between EU law and British law is deeply confused and confusing. It is the source of much of the resentment towards EU, but unpicking what law applies where will be, as a report by the House of Commons concluded, “one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK.” Lawyers will have a field day, and that means taxpayers will have to pay. It’s also unclear how the Repeal Bill can be passed through the Commons while the politics of Brexit are so up in the air.

At present, with all eyes on May, the growing consensus, even among some Leave supporters, is that chaos beckons. The Leave campaign promised a bonfire of EU “red tape”—to destroy those continental bureaucratic impediments long blamed holding Britain back. Now, however, businesses are dreading the “bureaucracy bombshell” Brexit is meant to bring.

MAY IS a much weaker figure than she was before the election. She and her team chose to interpret Brexit not just as a vote against Brussels, but as an opportunity to move politics away from the globalism of former prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron. Earlier this year, May appeared to be carving out a new “third way”—not between Left and Right, but between nationalism and internationalism; between the ugly chauvinism of Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, and the economic liberalism that has dominated Tory politics for most May’s career. May herself was not afraid to stand up for patriotism: she got a cold reception from financial and political elites when she told them, repeatedly, “If believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” But her advisers stressed that she wanted to challenge free-market capitalism to save itself. She talked of “rebalancing the economy” to better serve the north of England, which distressed let-the-market-rip Brexiteers. Mayism then could be seen as an Anglican version of America First, or Brexit as Trumpism lite. The prime minister’s manifesto included proposals to put workers on company boards and levy on companies who hired foreign workers.

This political positioning seemed brilliant: the Tories would go along with her gestures to the Left, it was thought, because the alternative was the beardy socialist Corbyn, and her economic protectionism would attract millions of disgruntled voters in the old Labour heartlands. But then it failed, and May’s vision of Brexit suddenly looked out of touch. All of May’s leftward nods on the economy couldn’t make the Tories look as if they really cared about those “left behind” by globalization. It’s worth remembering that David Cameron tried and failed to brand himself a “Red Tory,” because nobody believed him either. Any hopes that Brexit could be the vehicle through which Britain might push back against the global populist surge have been dashed. The antipolitics momentum is now entirely with Jeremy Corbyn and the hard Left.

Before June 8, May’s real ace card against Europe was Donald Trump. It was well known that Trump considered Brexit to be “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” and that he disliked the EU, which he regards as little more than a protection racket for German manufacturing. After reaching the White House, Trump moved quickly to scrap the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership, which President Obama had reached with Europe. Obama had said that under Brexit, Britain would be “in the back of the queue” in any future trade deals with the world’s biggest economy. Trump said Britain would be first, and told the London Times that he wanted to strike a free-trade agreement “very quickly.” As Britain began the complicated and expensive process of disentangling itself from the European Union, America’s new commander in chief seemed to be the answer to every Brexiteer’s prayers. Trump would not only support Britain; it was hoped that he would make life harder for Germany and the EU, and therefore weaken their positions in Brexit talks.

May seized on this apparent diplomatic opportunity. While the rest of the world was still gawping at the unreality of a Trump presidency, she became the first world leader to meet him in the White House. She even let him hold her hand, much to the disgust of the British left, which held protests in Westminster and screamed “Theresa the appeaser!”

May further obtained Trump’s reassurances that he fully supported NATO, which she hoped would show anxious Europeans that, in the new postliberal West, she could play the part of Thatcher to Trump’s Reagan. Trump, for his part, reiterated that Brexit was “a wonderful thing.” And again in July, Trump promised Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, a “major trade deal” which would be “very big & exciting.”

But now Trump’s presidency appears to be unraveling even more dramatically than May’s premiership. Steve Bannon, a great Brexit enthusiast, is no longer in the White House, and the new, general-dominated administration is less inclined towards populist nationalism, and more towards a multilateral view of world affairs. Should May have put so much faith in so tempestuous a figure as Trump? It is in the British character to exaggerate the fondness Americans have for their mother country. The truth is that Brits feel desperately nervous about their Brexit future, which is why they clung to the hope that Uncle Sam (in the unlikely shape of Trump) would save them, so that they could go back to fun things, like arguing about legs and inappropriate newspaper headlines. So far, however, neither Britain’s Brexit government nor the orange king across the water inspires much confidence.

Freddy Gray, deputy editor of the London Spectator, is a regular contributor to the National Interest.

Image: Reuters

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