A recent commentary by the heads of ECFR’s Berlin and Paris offices brings out just how fed up the United Kingdom’s key European partners are with the Brexit farrago in general, and all the bizarre evolutions of this autumn in particular. The European Union already has enough to deal with in the stormy seas it is navigating without having to endure the periodic irruptions into the wheelhouse of a madman demanding to be put ashore. If he really wants to dive off the side, maybe just let him.
Exasperation is, of course, even more intensely felt in the UK. More than three years have now passed since the referendum, and what has been achieved? Nothing, it seems, beyond the neglect of our deteriorating economic and social conditions, and the replacement of traditional politics with toxic partisanship. Respect for the truth is eroding by the day; incitement to violence becomes ever less guarded. No wonder that even some Remainers now see leaving the EU as a price worth paying to get it all over with.
And this, of course, is exactly the reaction that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government (mesmerised by the Svengali-like Dominic Cummings) is trying to generate. Since the day Johnson entered Number 10, his key objective has been to normalise the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit – to suggest that any disruption will be limited, temporary, and followed by the resumption of normal service, only better, as we cast off the shackles of the EU. “Just get it done” is a powerful mantra.
Johnson consistently asserts that he would actually prefer to achieve a deal. And, of course, he would: he knows that no deal would have a profoundly damaging economic and social impact, and would be only the end of the beginning. It would be just the prelude to many more years of controversy and rancour as the UK sought to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, and the EU (politely but implacably) directed it back to the unresolved withdrawal issues of citizens’ rights, the UK’s unpaid bill, and the Irish backstop. But such considerations relate to the future and concern the national interest – and so are of little interest to Johnson. All that matters to Johnson is winning the now-inevitable early election. Critically, he cannot hope to do that if his flank is exposed to accusations of a sell-out from Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party. So, as he just conclusively demonstrated with his unworkable “compromise” offer, Johnson can only seriously entertain a deal on terms the EU can never agree to give him. Accordingly, the government is spending more than £100m on a media campaign to convince the public that the UK is ready and that no deal would be fine.
Shutting down Parliament was key to this strategy. In session, Parliament can make waves, ask awkward questions, and even legislate against no deal. The happy weeks of summer, when there was no news other than Johnson’s progress to the premiership and then a succession of promised handouts for “people’s priorities” such as health services, gave way to parliamentary defeats, rancorous Tory infighting, and the loss of his parliamentary majority. And now the Supreme Court has scotched the prorogation, and Johnson stands accused of having “misled” the Queen (which is nonsense, of course: Her Majesty was – no doubt reluctantly – complicit, so add the monarchy to the list of British institutions tarnished by the Brexit corrosion).
Only a second seems likely to provide an effective antidote to the posion injected into our body politic by the first
Accordingly, those in Johnson’s camp are now holding to the “just get it done” myth (pitching no deal as the quickest way to end to the Brexit nightmare) with a renewed emphasis on that fine old populist trope, the “will of the people”, to set up a “people versus Parliament (and the judges)” election. They constantly invoke the views of 17.4m people as expressed in a flawed referendum more than three years ago – while brushing aside the evidence that a decisive number of voters have now changed their minds. In the European Parliament election in May, straight Remain parties out-polled straight Leave parties by almost five percentage points. Politico’s Poll of Polls has shown a roughly similar lead for Remain over Leave in the wider population for well over a year now. No matter: the will of the people is (as in all times and all places) anything the populists say it is.
Who knows what the coming weeks will bring? Johnson has made clear that he has no intention of complying with the law of the land, which now requires him to seek a further Brexit extension if the upcoming European Council meeting finishes without a deal. So a crash-out at the end of October remains a real and present danger. Beyond that and an early general election, there will likely be a second referendum. In any case, no one should underestimate the power of a ruthlessly Trumpian campaign fought under the twin banners of “just get it done” and “the people versus the elite”.
But, please, European friends and partners, do not write us off as a lost cause just yet. Much of our press is ghastly; the mob now daily hurling death threats at our women MPs are vile. Nonetheless, Parliament has found its voice, albeit a discordant one; the judges have fronted up; and Remainers now form the majority. So, assuming that some recognisable UK authority comes forward to ask for an extension, please take a deep breath and grant us one. And make it at least six months, so there is time for that referendum. Only a second referendum, whether before or after the general election, seems likely to provide an effective antidote to the poison injected into our body politic by the first. And a successful second plebiscite, affirming the majority wish to stay in the EU, is, of course, the only way to satisfy that widely felt longing to “just get it done”.
Why should you indulge us yet again? Because you won’t escape the fallout from the United Kingdom’s implosion and disintegration, which might very well be the alternative. Because, to finish on a note of optimism, you will likely find us easier partners in future. The horror show of the last three years has deflated much of our complacency, and our belief in British exceptionalism. A generational change is shifting national attitudes in a more liberal direction. And, perhaps most importantly of all, we have a shared interest in seeing Trumpian politics defeated and discredited wherever they appear.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.