The first problem with Brexit is the word Brexit—one of those stupid portmanteau words, like motel or brunch. It is a joined-up abbreviation of “Britain’s” and “exit from the European Union.” Conceived in a think tank, by someone who wanted to remain in the E.U., the term should have been murdered at birth. Instead, like a poisonous weed, it has grown and grown. It is now so monstrous that it chokes the national conversation. Brexit suffocates good journalism, kills parties, and divides families. Everyone is sick of it.
Everyone knows roughly what it stands for. But nobody knows what it is or will be. “Brexit means Brexit,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, famously, just after she took charge. But she didn’t know what she meant, and neither did we, and now everybody is muddled and angry. Brexit also sounds a bit like sex, which means it is bound to disappoint.
It means different things to different people. It often means different things to the same people. It is, like Trump in America, driving the country a bit mad. Most Brits are exhausted from swinging between concern that we are an international laughingstock, and resentment that we can’t seem to “take back control”—as the Leave campaign’s slogan put it—of our sovereignty.
In July, after two years of argument and dithering, we seemed to have hit a crunch point. Theresa May, our reluctant Brexiteer-in-chief, convened a Cabinet meeting at Chequers, her country residence, to thrash out an agreement as to what Britain’s future relationship with Europe should be—what Brexit means, in other words.
The idea was to unite May’s Cabinet, which is split between “soft” and “hard” Brexiteers. Fat chance. A number of the harder Brexiteers felt the meeting was a “remain coup.” Certainly, May went about it in a funny way, confiscating all the Cabinet’s electronic devices from them to ensure nobody could leak details to the press—a move that rather sums up the state of her premiership.
Then, after a few hours the ministers emerged, and the details were announced: Britain would “maintain a common rulebook” for trading goods with the E.U.—including, crucially, agricultural goods—after we had left. A treaty would be signed to secure “continued harmonisation” with E.U. rules, so as to avoid harmful friction at U.K.-E.U. borders, including Northern Ireland. The sops to Brexiteers were that Parliament would have the power to choose to diverge from E.U. rules and that “different arrangements” would be reached for services, as opposed to goods.
The Chequers Agreement, then, amounted to a sort of quasi-exit from the European Union. Brexit meant Quexit. There would be no significant divergence from E.U. laws, but if Parliament later wanted to withdraw more fully, it would be able to in theory.
The plan collapsed almost instantly. The Brexit Secretary David Davis and the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned. In his resignation letter, Johnson wrote that the Brexit “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
We have postponed crucial decisions—including the preparations for no deal, as I argued in my letter to you of last November—with the result that we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system.
In her reply, May insisted her plan
is a proposal which will honour the result of the referendum and the commitments we made in our general election manifesto to leave the single market and the customs union. It will mean that we take back control of our borders, our laws, and our money—ending the freedom of movement, ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom, and ending the days of sending vast sums of taxpayers’ money to the European Union.
It’s hard to know if May really believes that to be true. What’s certain is that her plan failed to satisfy just about everyone. If anything, a strange outbreak of unity gripped the country, briefly, as both Remainers and Leavers agreed that the Chequers Agreement risked being the worst of all worlds: E.U. obligations without influence.
The plan soon began to fall apart. Under pressure from Jacob Rees-Mogg and the hard Brexit Tories who make up the European Research Group, May quickly conceded that her proposal for Britain to collect duties on behalf of the E.U. would be contingent on the E.U. agreeing to do the same for Britain. Remainers then said May was “hostage” to the more ruthless Tory Brexiteers.
Then, as if by magic, Trump entered, stage hard right. The American President finally visited Britain on July 13, and put on quite a show. He’s not exactly famous for calming political storms, and sure enough he dropped a news bomb the day before his arrival by conducting a sensational interview in the Sun. He declared he had offered May some advice on how to handle Brexit, but she ignored him and “wrecked it.” He added, for good measure, that Boris Johnson would make a great Prime Minister. The next day, at a press conference at Chequers, Trump clumsily tried to undo some of the damage: “This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job.” He claimed the Sun exclusive was “fake news,” even though the paper had accurately quoted him and published a recording of the interview.
May grimaced throughout. The British punditariat all agreed that Trump had behaved abominably. What nobody could admit was that Trump had, however crudely, simply said very loudly what most British politicians would only whisper in private: May’s Brexit compromise is a wreck.
May later revealed that Trump had advised her to “sue the E.U.,” and the political class chortled about what a silly idea that was. But lots of Brits would rather like that, and feel that Trump would make a far better Brexit negotiator than our Prime Minister. Take Boris Johnson, for instance. “Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” the then-foreign secretary said at a private dinner in June, a recording of which was leaked to the press. “He’d go in bloody hard. . . . There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
May might as well sue the E.U., actually. You could argue in a court of law that, in strict financial terms, Britain’s contributions to the Union have outweighed what it has received. And it’s not as if the E.U.’s mandarins have shown any spirit of reciprocity toward May’s compromises.
Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said the Union would not tolerate Britain collecting duties on its behalf. He makes it clear that the Commission would only accept Britain remaining within the customs union, something that the Labour Party supports. Brexiteer Tories would deem that a betrayal of the democratically expressed will of the people, and a missed opportunity to break free from European control. So May is stuck between the rock of E.U. membership and the hard place of her own diplomatic fudge.
The other great sticking point is the Irish border. Both Britain and the E.U. want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is an E.U. member. But the British government and Brussels cannot settle on a viable post-Brexit alternative border system. The time for reaching a compromise is running out—Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U. on March 29, 2019—so both sides are discussing a “backstop” clause, which would mean Northern Ireland remained within the customs union and the single market. The British government has signalled a time-limited backstop would be acceptable. The E.U. says that any time limit is unacceptable. Neither side is budging.
Backstop or no backstop, the bigger picture is that the most likely way ahead for Brexit now looks like the dreaded path of “no deal”—precisely what May has stubbornly refused to prepare for. In fact, the idea that Brexit could involve some sort of transition period looks increasingly like a fantasy. Either you leave the European Union or you don’t. At any rate, as anybody who has read Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal knows, an unwillingness to walk away from any deal puts you in a very weak position. May could learn something from the 45th President of the United States.
Experts differ on quite how devastating a hard break between the European Union and Britain would be, but nobody thinks it would be painless. The government has caused quite a bit of panic in recent days with its “emergency contingency planning,” which involves the British army flying in food, fuel, and medicine in case trade with Europe is halted. Remainers see these contingency measures as a travesty, a reason why a hard Brexit should be stopped. May calls such preparations “sensible,” and they probably are.
Meanwhile, quite a few Brexiteers are asking why we should negotiate at all with a political bloc that would threaten to withhold essential trade to a prosperous nation in order to punish us, pour décourager les autres.
May could have bought herself some political wiggle room, given that she has now clearly made concessions to Brussels and had that offer thrown back in her face. A large section of her party, and the electorate, have sympathy for her. But an equally significant number feel she has completely botched the entire Brexit process, and are itching to remove her as soon as possible. In a sign of quite how desperate she is, May tried to call an early parliamentary recess—Westminster’s summer holiday—in order to buy her administration more time.
There’s no denying that, by Trumpian standards of diplomacy, Britain is losing Brexit and Europe is winning. But Europe should be wary of overplaying its hand. Among European voters, especially in countries such as Italy and Greece, there is growing antipathy toward the cold technocratic awfulness of the E.U. Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron may agree that it is imperative to preserve what they call the “integrity of the Union,” to give the U.K. no special treatment. But the E.U.’s refusal to change in the face of growing calls for more transparency and less of its “free movement” between peoples means its moment of reckoning is coming, whatever that means.