Natasha Hakimi ZAPATA
I’ve just returned from a whirlwind visit to the United Kingdom, where the elephant in every room seems to have grown to such proportions that Brits can hardly breathe without mentioning it with a groan. I’m talking about Brexit, of course, the U.K.’s ill-fated divorce from the European Union, which began over two years ago with a referendum that launched British politics into chaos.
Since that June day in 2016, nothing’s been quite the same in Britain, and almost nothing else has been more pressing on the minds and mouths of Britons everywhere. Turn on any channel in the U.K., pick up any paper on your way to the tube, step into any pub from Aberdeen to London or visit any British news website, and you’ll likely see or hear at least one mention of Brexit, if not several.
And yet, nothing has actually happened. Well, a few things have. The gamble-prone David Cameron resigned as prime minister in disgrace; a quick leadership contest in the Tory party led to the rise of former Home Secretary Theresa May over the infamous “Leave” campaigner Boris Johnson; Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered to begin the “divorce” negotiations; May called for a snap election that actually led to Tories losing seats in Parliament; and through it all, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has held his own against threats to his leadership within his party, a hostile media and even a possible government-funded conspiracy.
But in terms of Brexit, the U.K. is no closer now than it was in 2016 to even beginning its formal departure from the EU. May’s government has spent the better part of two years negotiating with the European Union, only to come up with a deal that pretty much no one likes, and that Corbyn calls “the worst of all worlds.” Here’s Corbyn’s take on the deal:
Instead of taking back control, it gives up control. Instead of protecting jobs and living standards, it puts them at risk by failing to put in place the basis for frictionless trade. For two and a half years the Conservatives have been negotiating with themselves, rather than the European Union. The result has been a lockdown withdrawal agreement, which ties Britain either into extending the transition phase at unknown cost–or tips us into a lopsided backstop agreement from which there is no independent exit. As the legal advice the prime minister tried to prevent us from seeing this week spells out, the backstop would “endure indefinitely” without the say-so of the EU.
What that means in practice is that the wish list of the government’s “future partnership” agreement with the EU would remain just that, without the leverage to get a long-term and effective trade deal. Meanwhile, Britain would have no say in either its own customs arrangements or key market regulations. While workers’ rights would be allowed to fall behind, restrictions on state aid to industry would be locked in.
May claims this is just an insurance policy. But it’s now clear the backstop is at the heart of her deal. It would leave Britain with no say in a humiliating halfway house which we couldn’t leave without the EU’s permission. There is no precedent I am aware of for a British government signing up to an international treaty it cannot withdraw from without the agreement of other countries. It is clearly unacceptable.
In the week before Parliament was scheduled to vote on the unpopular deal, a few game-changing events took place. While May had been billing her deal as the lesser of two evils (the other option being a “no deal” scenario that would create bureaucratic turmoil and severe economic consequences), a third option emerged miraculously from the European Court of Justice: Forget Brexit altogether. In an unexpected ruling, the ECJ decided that a country could turn its back on its invocation of Article 50 and leave things as they stood. In other words, the U.K. can still stay in the EU if it so chooses. The other momentous occurrence was that members of parliament successfully demanded to see the full legal advice on the deal, as Corbyn alludes to in his critique.
Facing a humiliating defeat in the parliamentary vote scheduled for Tuesday, May postponed the inevitable and sped across European capitals to plead with EU leaders for a better deal, to which most essentially responded, “No way, Theresa May.” While she was flying between countries as if her leadership depended upon it, rebels within her own party collected the 48 letters needed to trigger a vote of no confidence against her on Wednesday evening, which, if she loses, would lead to her resignation.
Meanwhile, it seems Labour has been carefully hedging its bets. The left-leaning party’s MPs are keenly aware that their constituents range across the entire Brexit spectrum, from die-hard “leavers” to staunch “remainers,” and have floated several options, including their own Brexit deal. Corbyn has also refused to rule out a second referendum in which “remain” would be an option, and has said he could be prepared to trigger a vote of no confidence in Parliament that would lead to a snap election. Importantly, Corbyn and his shadow cabinet have also seemed to consistently keep one crucial thing in mind: Brexit is a Tory mess, from start to finish. Beginning with the inner-party squabbles that led to Cameron’s referendum to the current madness threatening to engulf the government and depose another Tory leader, Labour cannot actually be blamed for any of it.
The end to this absurd saga seems to be nowhere in sight, as well as anybody’s guess. The EU could extend the negotiation period, originally set for two years from when Article 50 was invoked, to allow for further discussions, despite having insisted multiple times that the U.K. will not receive a better deal. There could be another referendum, which could either reaffirm the British public’s desire to leave the EU or else see the country reverse course. A new Tory leader could scramble to cobble together a deal within months—or whatever extension period the EU allows. May, if she survives Wednesday’s vote, could bully Parliament into accepting her deal, which, at this venture, is the most unlikely scenario. Labour could win a snap election and negotiate a different, more progressive agreement. Or Brexit may just be summarily abandoned and the U.K. will continue in its somewhat unhappy union with the 27 other member states that make up the EU.
Regardless of what happens, all of this is just the beginning of a divorce that will take years to fully carry out, despite the British public’s apparent exhaustion from months of murky negotiations. In the words of the BBC commentator who couldn’t contain his frustration at the whole sordid ordeal, “I haven’t got the foggiest idea.”
Personally, I like writer and filmmaker Paul Mason’s imagined scenario best: a canceled Brexit and a Labour election victory that would lead to Jeremy Corbyn becoming U.K. prime minister. You may say that Mason and I are dreaming, given the constant barrage of vitriol the progressive leader faces and the inertia pulling the U.K. violently out of the EU even now, but maybe we’re not the only ones.