Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Amid resignations, it's clear the U.K. government massively misjudged how leaving the European Union would play out.
After 28 months of wrangling, Britain may finally be on the verge of a Brexit deal. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled an agreement negotiated with the E.U. that allows Britain to officially renounce its membership of the union. So could this finally be the end of the country’s agonizingly slow pre-separation negotiation, allowing Britain to move on into a new chapter?
Probably not. May has to get her agreement voted through Parliament, and there’s a strong possibility that won’t happen. Die-hard pro-Brexit forces find it too compromised; die-hard pro-Remain forces see it as a needless exercise in wrecking existing E.U. arrangements. This dissent extends to May’s own cabinet. This morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (the minister directly responsible for overseeing the process) resigned in protest at the deal. Three other ministers have also resigned, and others may well follow.
If the deal scrapes through, it’s far from the brave new dawn that Brexit’s advocates insisted was just around the corner. It will still bind the country into accepting most E.U. rules (including a customs union) for the foreseeable future, while removing Britain’s ability to influence those rules as a union member. If a stalemate is reached, there’s even an outside possibility of a re-run of the referendum, or of the country crashing out of the union without any deal at all.
Whatever happens, this awkward and painful saga has provided a tough, embittered lesson for Britain—one that Brexit’s boosters are already acknowledging. The path this saga has taken is reflected in bleak headlines in Britain’s media this morning, that stand in huge contrast to those immediately after June 2016’s pro-Leave referendum result.
2016 vs 2018. 🤔 pic.twitter.com/Tii0YkhYCM— Michael Steen (@michaelsteen) November 14, 2018
The lessons it has brought are not just about the divisions present in the country—the gulf between between public opinion in relatively wealthy but deeply unequal London and depressed, struggling regions that feel left behind—stark though those lessons are. Internationally, the Brexit process has also revealed unrealistic, even vainglorious assumptions about the place and influence of Britain in the world at large.
The Pro-leave campaign was initially fueled by bullish self-confidence: It presented a vision of a Britain poised to resume its rightful place as a world-straddling superpower. Figures like Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson assured voters that, thanks to Britain’s economic might, the E.U. would swiftly fall into line to broker a favorable deal, desperate to ensure that we kept on buying its goods at high volume. We were fed fantastical visions of a buccaneering, neo-imperial nation that would reject complicated entanglements with our European neighbors and reinforce muscular global trade links with states in the former empire. These states, it was assumed, would jump at the chance to rekindle closer economic relations with their former exploiter.
Somehow, all this would be bought at no cost. British citizens would continue to enjoy frictionless travel to the E.U; goods and services would still cross borders with hyperloop-y speed and ease. But immigrants would find that Britain’s international entry points had become a veritable eye of the needle. Above all, we were told that all our E.U. contributions would now get fed straight into the National Health Service—a promise that mated imperial nostalgia with Britons’ fondness for a time when public services were better funded. As Pro-leave ex-Brexit Minister David Davis put it, there was “no downside to Brexit. Only a considerable upside”.
It’s not just that these assertions were unfounded. They showed a fundamental overestimation of Britain’s power and prestige, of its ability to bend other states to its will. The E.U. has not as yet capitulated to a single meaningful demand from a British government that has frequently looked weak and confused.
And why would they? The union has little to gain and much to lose from doing so, and on many points it’s constitutionally unable to concede. The European single market’s functioning, for example, is fundamentally based on the borderless movement of goods, services, and (E.U.) citizens, so Britain’s request to keep the two former freedoms but dispense with the latter is, and has always been, untenable.
This lack of realism on behalf of the pro-Brexit camp has been accompanied by a staggering ignorance of the world in which Britain orbits. Over the last 28 months, we have heard a Northern Ireland Secretary admit that, before taking office, she didn’t know that people in the province voted along sectarian lines. We have seen an MP who thought all U.K. citizens were eligible for Irish passports (in fact available only by Irish birth, descent or marriage). This month, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab (who resigned this morning) revealed that he had only recently discovered the importance of the port of Dover—Britain’s main access point to France—for international trade.
So how did these massive misunderstandings of how Brexit would play out come about? Part of it is down to the long afterglow of imperial delusion. Britain’s self-image has never fully adjusted to the realities of its contemporary power—a power that, while still considerable, can’t simply override that of 27 other European nations working in full agreement. But there’s something else at work here: Britain seems to assume that global power structures substantially resemble what it is familiar with domestically.
Britain operates under a form of political absolutism: Power is hugely invested in the party with a parliamentary majority. We have no elections for a head of state (the entertaining-but-powerless monarchy is little more than an expensive flea circus), and the House of Lords possesses only a moderate ability to sway government decision-making. And Britain tends to assume, incorrectly, that this all-or-nothing quality to holding political power is also reflected in its neighbors.
The E.U.’s federal structure corresponds to no British institution. It has thus been frequently represented in British media as a multi-hyphenated talking shop, a front organization that the British government can ignore while it negotiates with what it sees as its true peers—the governments of France and Germany.
But anyone familiar with the brutal way the E.U. has treated Greece since the financial crisis will not see it as an inherently ineffectual organization. It is a union, one whose ability to keep rank in a crisis has proved a painful, surprising lesson to Brexiters in love with the idea of going it alone.
Even now, many Brexit supporters still don’t get it. They continue to use the dusty language of imperial submission and dominance to describe relations with the E.U. (Boris Johnson recently referred to May’s deal as reducing the U.K. to “colony status”). Instead of restoring public faith in the idea of Britain as lead player on the global stage, the Brexit fiasco has eroded it. Now—too late—we are being presented with extremely convincing arguments for the value of not going it alone.