Think back to summer 2012, when London was hosting the Olympics and all appeared well in Shakespeare’s ‘blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’. No one could have predicted that within less than five years, the UK would have morphed into a fractured country riven by fractious politics. Dark forces and deep anger have been released into the body politic that will take decades to heal. Brexit was always going to generate a severe political crisis in the UK, and that crisis is now in full flight. It might have happened sooner but it was unavoidable.
In the 17th century during that great upheaval, the English revolution, the poet Robert Herrick wrote “I sing of times trans-shifting”. The UK finds itself again in times trans-shifting as it navigates the process of leaving the EU, which has for 45 years framed its place in the world and multiple domestic policies. Engaging in a live experiment of untying the ties that bind the UK to its neighbours has stretched the political and administrative capacity of the UK in unprecedented ways.
Since March 2017, the UK government and parliament have painfully discovered how difficult it is to transition from EU membership to third country status. Some liken it to that powerful phrase in the song Hotel California: "You can check out any time you like but you can never leave". This captures the essence of the Brexit dilemma: the UK is of course free to leave the EU but cannot exit on its own terms or without costs and consequences.
Agreement on a withdrawal agreement and an outline declaration on the future relationship was a major achievement for both sides. It involved intensive negotiations that underline the EU method of dissecting wicked problems and solving them institutionally and legally within very tight political constraints. Getting to “Yes” in the Brussels tunnel was just a staging post on a very uncertain road ahead.
UK prime minister Theresa May has had a conversion on the road to Brexit. At the beginning she opted for slogan politics, Brexit means Brexit, and undeliverable red lines, but she slowly tempered her strategy when faced with the prospect of no-deal and major damage to the UK economy. Even then Mrs May did not explain to her society that there were serious trade-offs involved. Nor did she confront the fantasies of the Breixteers head on, and she still refuses to call out their lies, but she has negotiated an exit agreement.
The politics of the next phase revolve around what happens within the Conservative party and in the House of Commons. The European reform Group (ERG) led by Jacob Rees Mogg is attempting to challenge Mrs May’s leadership, but they have so far failed to garner the 48 votes necessary to trigger a vote of confidence. Even if they amass sufficient support, Mrs May is likely to survive.
Her real challenge lies in the parliamentary arithmetic which suggests that she will find it very difficult to get the agreement through the House of Commons. Once the November European Council endorses the deal on November 25th, the prime minister will move to get parliamentary approval. There are lots of potential scenarios, and nothing should be ruled out, but if Mrs May succeeds in getting the agreement through the Commons, it will be a political escape of Houdini proportions.
If she fails, we are in uncharted territory. Would she resign, call an election or be forced out? If she is forced out, who would replace her? If she remains in power and calls an election, could she win? What is certain is that the political crisis in the UK would darken and deepen and that infamous clock would keep ticking.
It seems to me that there are three possible outcomes at this stage. First, after an initial defeat, a withdrawal and related legislation is successfully brought through the House of Commons, because of fears of chaos, by the government, but not necessarily this government. Second is that the UK leaves the EU on March 29th next year without a deal. There are those in the UK who believe that the EU will negotiate mini-deals to lessen disruption but there is little appetite for this on the EU side at this stage. This could well change in the event of an impending no-deal. Third is a decision to return the issue to the people.
The EU27 can do little but watch the unfolding political drama in London but would have to react in the event that the agreement fails to pass or that there is a new government requesting a reopening of the negotiations or a referendum. The EU will continue its preparations for a no deal and is unlikely to agree to alter the withdrawal agreement in any substantive way other than a few cosmetic changes here or there. Extending article 50 would be contemplated only with reluctance and if there was a major development in the UK such as a second referendum.
At this stage, the EU wants to move on from this phase of the Brexit saga. Given the intensity of the withdrawal negotiations, we should brace ourselves for even more difficult negotiations ahead on the future relationship. If Mrs May manages to get the agreement through, my bet would be on a much softer Brexit than originally envisaged. The UK’s political elite struggle to recognise or accept their deep interdependence with the rest of Europe that can never be overtaken by a fantasy of Global Britain.
Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman centre for advanced studies at the European University Institute, Firenze