Brexit: UK may have checked out, but it can never leave

A divided public and constitutional concerns make it impossible for Britain to pull out of the EU, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

September 1, 2016
Michael Parkin illustration (1 September 2016)
Source: Michael Parkin

In a rational political system, the agony over the UK’s vote to leave the European Union would be over by now.

No government in the aftermath of a self-inflicted referendum can turn to the voters and tell them, “You’ve voted for something impossible – even if you’re dumb enough to think it’s desirable – and we’re just going to carry on regardless.” But in what is now the standard model of European democracy, the government would be a coalition. The junior partner, who in the UK’s case would be the Liberal Democrats, could take it on themselves to reject Brexit (if they hadn’t succeeded in sparing us from having a referendum in the first place). A new election would reinforce the pro-European parliamentary majority. And we would need endure no more of the frustrating, crippling uncertainty, which, although particularly acute for higher education and research, afflicts most of the UK, Europe and the world.

There would be good grounds for rejecting the referendum, and not only because voters were misled about basic facts (“EU law lecture’s success shows ‘people don’t want to be lied to’”, News, 21 July). Father forgive them, for they knew not what they did. The genuine pro-Brexiteers were in any case voting for a chimera, unaware of how long the process would be, how painful the waiting and how uncertain the outcome. The result, if you allow for protest votes and instant subscribers to Bregret, was probably unrepresentative of British opinion. In any case, no sensible community makes major constitutional decisions that will constrict future generations and sacrifice currently enshrined rights on the basis of a bare majority. The referendum was like an embarrassingly long nose, not because it was, like Pinocchio’s, a growth from lies, but because the kindest thing to do with it would have been to ignore it.

The pity of the UK’s present predicament, however, is that there is no need to repudiate the referendum. Brexit will almost certainly never happen anyway. There are lame ducks, and dead ducks. This one was stillborn. The world seems to be coming round to the opinion I offered in my column in Spain’s El Mundo in the immediate aftermath of the vote: the UK’s ties to the rest of the union are too knotty for the government to unpick – even if the negotiations were in the hands of someone more impressive than David Davis. But it may be worth reviewing the reasons for disbelieving in the Brexiteers’ fantasies.

First – as Parkinson’s last law points out – delay is the deadliest form of denial. Public opinion is fragile, if not fickle, and the notion that a referendum on day x could still be valid in x + 30 months – the minimum time imaginable for the Brexit negotiations even in Davis’ limited imagination – is glaringly nonsensical. Revulsion from Brexit will grow as voters realise that the expected benefits were illusory. There can be no untrammelled sovereignty, because we inhabit an interdependent world. There will be no massive savings for the NHS because the UK’s EU dues, if you subtract the subsidies, are a pot of gold too small for the meanest leprechaun. There will be no free trade with Nafta or Mercosur, China or India or any other giant because trade negotiations turn giants into ogres and no one has any reason to do the UK favours. There will be no xenophobes’ Utopia because the only condition that can reduce immigration is a shrunk economy. There will be no cost-free access to the European common market because it’s a seller’s market: you have to buy into it. By the time the negotiations yield a discernible framework for the future (if they ever do) it will be a future nobody wants.

Second, the constitutional imbroglio is intractable. The UK cannot invoke Article 50 without undermining her own negotiating position; and cannot negotiate without invoking the article. The impasse makes catch-22 look like noughts and crosses. The lip-smackers in Brussels would love to see the article invoked and the UK exposed: to subvert the UK’s interest and get rid of a turbulent and perfidious former partner would suit them admirably; but prime minister Theresa May is surely not foolish enough to oblige them. If she wished to do so, how could she manage? If she were to try to steamroller Parliament, she would face a constitutional crisis. If she called a general election on an article-invoking platform she would be back with the old problem for which David Cameron sacrificed himself: how to keep the Conservative Party together. The passage to Brexit among all the EU states, all of whom have to be satisfied individually no less than collectively, is as unnavigable as Charybdis.

Finally, it is impossible – I mean that literally – to find a Brexit formula that does justice to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and the vast majority of young people who voted to remain in the union.

Why not end the agony now and admit that the UK’s future outside Europe would not be – or would not merely be – diminished, impoverished, insecure and globally marginalised, but would rather be no future at all, because it is unrealisable? “Vesti la giubba!” is the clowns’ cry. The motley goes on; the charade continues, senseless and damaging though it is, because, just as the UK has no apparent exit route from the union, the government has no way out of its dilemma.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.

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