On Wednesday, 12 days after the U.K. had initially been due to leave the European Union (EU), Prime Minister Theresa May headed to Brussels to persuade leaders of the remaining 27 member states to grant Britain an extension that would enable Brexit to happen by June 30 at the latest. With the ultimate decision on this lying with Brussels (and the member states, each of which has the ability to veto an extension outright), it felt a far cry from the picture of a Britain “taking back control” that the government and Leave supporters had propounded in the wake of the 2016 referendum. In the end Britain’s suggested date was brushed aside as EU leaders — following an epic five-hour meeting — opted for October 31, with Britain able to leave earlier if a deal is reached.
After it became clear that the original March 29 Brexit deadline was no longer tenable, accusations over who was responsible have come thick and fast. Ms. May herself faced a backlash from MPs when she appeared to blame them for the chaos, accusing them of “political games” and “arcane political rows” that she and the public had tired of. Ironically for Ms. May, her comments were also seen as bolstering the determination of MPs to continue to block her withdrawal deal within Parliament, which has now thrice been rejected by MPs.
As with the results of the 2016 referendum, the causes of the current political crisis in Britain are manifold, though the starting point surely has to be the open-ended nature of the question put to the public: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The question, which itself was open to generous interpretation, was used as a launch pad for all sorts of arguments by the Leave campaign, ranging from the need to end free movement from the EU and immigration more widely, to having the opportunity to strike trade deals independently, to ending payments to the EU, to challenging the establishment. All these and other reasons played into the result: a Nuffield study published last year noted that immigration was the main reason that people voted to leave, followed by sovereignty, though the economy and the desire to teach politicians a lesson also played in.
The ambiguity of the question has meant that politicians across the political spectrum have been able to interpret the results to pursue pretty much any vision of Brexit. There’s Ms. May, who has put immigration controls at the heart of her vision of Brexit. This position on free movement is also adopted to a certain extent by the Labour party, to the fury of many of its supporters. However, while Ms. May has insisted on ending membership of the EU customs union to enable Britain to forge independent trade deals on goods, Labour believes remaining in part of these arrangements is the only way to enable businesses to get the tariff and hassle-free relationship with Europe they require to continue thriving, while ensuring that no hard border develops on the island of Ireland between the Republic of Ireland (the EU nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.).
Across party lines
These visions have not held across party lines, with some MPs choosing to leave their parties over their differences. While some Conservative MPs believe Ms. May’s plan to transform the relationship is excessive, there are others who have condemned it as tantamount to a betrayal, relegating Britain to “vassal” status to the EU, particularly because of the backstop arrangements for Ireland that would put the U.K. into a customs union with the EU that couldn’t be ended unilaterally were future talks to break down. Labour, on the other hand, has faced critics who believe it should be doing more to represent the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, as well as from others who have warned that fighting Brexit would amount to abandoning some of the most deprived communities in northern England which voted overwhelmingly to leave. These tensions — which have pervaded the party membership, discussion between MPs and even the cabinet and shadow cabinet — have made achieving political consensus on all sides particularly difficult.
But what has been particularly striking is the government’s refusal to compromise. It had become increasingly clear that the government’s vision of Brexit wasn’t one that would pass through Parliament — indeed, 230 MPs voted against it in January in the biggest defeat for a U.K. government in parliamentary history. Ms. May has plodded on regardless, even as some pointed out the double standards: she insisted that she should be able to bring her vote to MPs over and over again; but at the same time she robotically insisted on respecting the referendum result, despite the fact that so much had changed and so much more had become known in the past two years.
However, Ms. May is not the only one to refuse to compromise. Some Brexiteers and the Conservative party’s parliamentary ally, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, have dug in. The DUP’s intransigence will be particularly painful for Ms. May, whose impetuous decision to call a snap general election in 2017 gave them the crucial powerful hand over Brexit decisions. Indeed, had that election not been called, it is quite possible that the government would not have struggled with the numbers in getting its deal through, and Brexit could have happened on the scheduled date.
Advocates of a public vote too have not covered themselves in glory. The Independent Group of MPs who left the Conservative and Labour parties earlier this year courted criticism when they failed to help push the customs union and other softer options over the line in a series of indicative votes recently. Had they done so, MPs could have got the majority they needed for a road ahead to show that there was an alternative road to Ms. May’s, but instead they have continued to cling to the hope of either revocation or a public confirmatory vote.
It has been particularly unfortunate for the U.K. that given the fundamental issues that were apparent from the start of the Brexit process that Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union was triggered in March 2017 well before the type of Brexit they wanted to pursue had been agreed upon. This has forced the debate to happen against the backdrop of a deadline and cliff-edge that has made it possible for the government to threaten, “it’s our deal or no deal”, or “it’s our deal or a long delay”, making it more into a game of chicken than a country trying to forge the right road ahead. For this Parliament itself bears much responsibility, voting overwhelmingly to trigger the exit process back in 2017 with pretty much nothing to go on.
If the Brexit process was Britain’s first opportunity to flout its prowess as a rational, independent trading nation, capable of holding its own on the global stage, it is a chance that has so far been missed by miles and the sense of frustration among EU leaders has been palpable. The October 31 deadline has given Britain time to find the “best possible solution,” Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said, urging Britain to “not waste this time”. Whether Britain manages to do so and finally comes up with a solution acceptable to Parliament and the EU remains to be seen.