What You Need to Know about Brexit

Jack Taylor/Pool Photo via AP

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May walks to give a press conference outside Downing Street, in London.

Q. Why Can’t the House of Commons Agree on a Brexit Policy?

A. In the House of Commons there is always a majority against any proposal on Brexit, but never a majority for a solution.  The British political system is binary and adversarial with no tradition of coalition, power-sharing or good relations between the governing party and the opposition, except during the two World Wars. 

Thus party loyalty tends to have primacy. If May proposes something, Labour and Liberal vote against. If Labour proposes something, Conservatives vote against.

Q. Is there a chance to avoid a No-Deal Brexit on April 12?

A. Only if May is willing to compromise. So far she has refused to move one millimeter towards other parties in the House of Commons – Labour, Liberal-Democrats, or Scottish Nationalists. She insists her proposals, which have been rejected three times in the Commons by big majorities, cannot be changed. There have been talks between Labour and the Government and May and Corbyn have met.  But so far, May refuses to meet Labour even part way. She has a history of being very stubborn and inflexible. These are not qualities for successful negotiation.

Q. Might a fourth vote bring a majority for May's Brexit Deal? 

A. I don’t think so unless she changes her line and compromises with Labour.  The opposition parties are united in seeing the deal as bad for Britain.  

The sticky issues include the money the UK owes the EU after an exit; treatment of EU citizens in the UK; keeping the peace in Ireland, and the 147 paragraphs of the Political Declaration. These outline future areas of negotiation between the UK and the EU after Brexit. There is a minimum of 5-10 years of difficult, bad-tempered negotiations ahead. 

May also has a group of irreducible anti-European Tories for whom opposing Europe has been a religious and ideological question for 30 years or longer. They will never vote for her deal and together with the opposition parties it is hard to see a majority for her deal.

Q. What are the deeper roots of this stalemate? 

A. There has never been a political consensus on the European question in Britain. Brexit did not happen in 2016. It was the result of 20 years of dedicated political work, drumbeats from anti-European media often owned by men who are not British or pay no taxes in Britain. These newspapers put out ant-EU propaganda every day in the 15 years before the vote. 

Of course there were flamboyant characters like Nigel Farage, himself from a wealthy, elite background but it was the support for anti-European politics from mainstream parties and politicians that helped create the atmosphere that led to Brexit.  Labour was anti-European 1950-1985 and the Conservatives turned against Europe after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.  

Q. You were a MP yourself. How did you experience this endless chaos?

A. I watched with dismay the rising tide of anti-EU demagogy in the Commons from the moment I entered Parliament in 1994. My first speech was in support of Europe when I spoke in a debate with Sir Ted Heath, the prime minister who took the UK into the European Economic Community in 1972. But for every pro-EU speech from me or Ted Heath in 1994, there were anti-European speeches from Conservative and some Labour MPs.  

Jeremy Corbyn has always voted against EU Treaties and never supported European integration since he adopted a leftist hostility to European partnership and construction from the 1970s onwards. After Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, the Conservative Party decided to adopt many anti-EU arguments and lines. William Hague, the Tory party leader 1997-2001, called for referendums on the Treaties or Amsterdam and Nice and said Britain would become “a foreign land” if the pro-EU Tony Blair was re-elected in 2001. 

Hague’s Tory successors started to bang the drum against workers from the EU coming into the UK. David Cameron of course took the Conservative Party out of the conservative voting bloc in the European Parliament, the first political Brexit-- and then insisted on holding his foolish plebiscite despite clear warnings that it would turn into a populist hate campaign against immigrants. 

I wrote a book in January 2015 called Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe but the political and business elites and the elite press like the Financial Times, Economist or the BBC refused to take Brexit seriously and would not publish my warning it could happen.

Q. Has Theresa May any authority in her own party?

A. You cannot lose 3 major Commons votes and expect to have authority in British political life. Fully 30 of her ministers have resigned in protest against the way she has handled Brexit – nearly one a week since she became Prime Minister. She is regularly accused of “betraying” the Conservative Party or leading it to ruin.  I cannot recall a prime minister who is so held in contempt and public scorn by MPs who in the past were always loyal to the party leader who was Prime Minister.

Q. What are the economic consequences so far of the Brexit stalemate?

A. UK GDP is 2.5 per cent lower than when May took over. £1 trillion has been transferred out of the City to EU capitals. European citizens are leaving key jobs in Britain. There is a surge of xenophobic hate and insults against Europeans. The national public services – health care, schools, council services, clean streets –are in poor shape.  There are beggars outside ever tube station in London and every supermarket in Britain. President Trump says she is useless as a negotiator. Macron and Merkel look on her with pity. She is certainly one of the worst-ever British prime ministers since the post was created 300 years ago.

Q. Why are Brexiteers so stubborn about the Irish backstop?

A. One thing May does understand is the threat to peace in Northern Ireland. If any kind of border is created with physical border controls to check customs and stop any products or food from the UK outside the EU entering Ireland inside the EU without being inspected to ensure conformity to EU regulations, then it will become a target for Irish militant nationalists. 

There are small groups of dedicated militants who want to see all British presence in Ireland removed and the island unified under rule from Dublin. They have weapons and explosives and their favorite target is border installations. 

That is why the police and intelligence agencies in Belfast, Dublin and London are adamant that the Good Friday Agreement will end if a hard border appears. On the other side that means Northern Ireland and by implication the rest of the UK staying aligned to EU customs rules and many regulations. But in a religious war symbols have their own identity and for the hard Brexiters it is acceptable to risk peace in Ireland in order to obtain their wish of a total and complete separation from the EU.

Q. Labour, your party, doesn't look any better. Is Jeremy Corbyn the problem?

A. Corbyn has never thought deeply about Europe. But it isn’t so much Corbyn as the millions of Labour voters especially in the post-industrial regions with many working class citizens who feel let down and ignored by globalization and by London elite. They voted for Brexit as part of an anti-immigrant, anti-austerity, anti-elite protest. 

Certainly Corbyn has failed to challenge their prejudices especially on free movement of workers and he himself does not like that part of the EU which insists on open markets and free competition and free movement for capital, goods and services. Corbyn and Labour have been like passengers on the Brexit Titanic sitting drinking gin and tonic in their deckchairs and enjoying the fighting on the bridge as Captain May tries to steer the ship called the United Kingdom around the iceberg of Brexit. 

Labour thinks that if May and the Conservatives are seen to be responsible for Brexit this will be to Labour’s advantage. Yet a big majority of the opinion polls held in 2019 still show the Tories ahead of Labour. Corbyn has had nearly three year to articulate a Labour response to Brexit or come up with ideas and responses to oppose Mrs. May effectively. 

The big opposition to Brexit came when 1 million marched in London in March and 6 million signed a petition calling on Mrs May to stop Brexit.  These were initiatvies of civil society with no involvement by Corbyn or Labour. Indeed 9 Labour MPs have left the party in protest at Corbyn’s lack of leadership in opposing Brexit.  

At bottom, Brexit has exposed the weakness and lack of intellectual authority in both main parties and left a public very disillusioned with the poor quality of political leadership in Britain.

Q. What could be the next step in the Brexit process?

A. The Brexit process is accelerating. The UK should have left the EU on 29 March 2019. But May had to go on her knees to the EU leaders to ask for more time as she could not get support in the Commons for her unpopular and unworkable deal on Brexit. Now she is again asking for more time. 

It is unclear how much more time the EU27 will give the UK.  It is already a major defeat for the Brexit forces that they have not been able to leave the EU on the date set in Treaty and British law. 

I assume or perhaps hope there may be some last minute concession by May, which the EU can accept and Britain does not leave the EU this year. That will imply taking part in the European Parliament elections, which will be an important test of support for the hard anti-European amputationists. So 2020 arrives, four year after the referendum, and the UK is still in the EU on a provisional basis. But as they French say the provisional can last a very long time.

Q. Despite the mess a sizeable number of British people still seems to support Brexit. Why?

A. The “mess” is one that affects the political class and impacts on the UK’s international reputation. But don’t forget Brexit has not yet happened. All borders are open. Japanese car factories and Airbus have not shut down and left Britain. 284,000 British visitors flew to Spain in February this year so for them Brexit has not yet had an impact. When there are tough frontiers controls on passports, or when the 2 million Brits who live in Europe lose their citizenship rights, especially their health care cover and have to return home to England at that stage the British will realize Brexit has real impact on their lives but until now anti-EU feelings which are to found all over Europe remain strong especially when whipped up by populist political forces.

Q. You have coined the term Brexeternity. What do you mean by that?

A. Unless there is a reversal of Brexit by means of a new referendum, the impact of leaving Europe will dominate economic, political, social, cultural and international relations for at least a decade if not longer. In that sense there will be no clear end to Brexit. Instead there will be an eternity of Brexit related issues casting a shadow over future British life for many years to come. I invented the word “Brexit” in 2012. Now my new addition to the English vocabulary is “Brexeternity.”

Q. Looking to the future, what effect will Brexit have on British politics?

A. Massive. Neither of the classic 20th century big parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberals – have been able to find good answers to Brexit.  The Conservative and Labour parties are divided internally. A prime minister has been defeated by some of the biggest majorities ever seen in Parliament. 30 of her ministers have resigned. The 500,000 mainly young new Labour Party members who joined Labour in 2015 and 2016 feel very disillusioned. 

For the first time in four decades there is a split in the Labour Party. Senior Conservatives are organizing to oust May but any possible replacement is likely to be even more anti-European. Corbyn and his shadow cabinet are in the closing years of their political lives but Labour had been unable to produce any impressive new young leaders. 

Brexit has been like a giant tube of super glue squeezed into every part of British political machinery stopping the wheels turning. British politics has been at standstill for nearly three years and politicians are now held in more contempt by the public than at any time since the 1930s. 

The plebiscite has arrived as a rival to the three centuries of the supremacy of the representative parliamentary tradition. One can sense British politics dissolving. There are many book published calling for a new politics based on civil society involvement, devolution, compromise and coalition. Brexit is simultaneously gluing up old politics but perhaps opening Britain to new ways of doing politics and government. That process is only just beginning and no one knows how it will end.


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