Opinion
19.01.17

Brexit: As hard as it gets

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschoen.tv

Hyper-partisan modern politics are to blame, say Mark Dawson and Pierre Thielbörger.

A year ago, a certain fashionable reading of the upcoming Brexit referendum was that it wouldn’t change much. If Britain voted remain, it would stay only as a half-hearted member of the European family. If it voted out, it would still be half in: even the pro-Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage promised that a UK outside the European Union would remain a close trading partner, most likely from within the European single market.

The Prime Minister’s Brexit speech on 17 January was the latest signal that, one year on, the United Kingdom is headed for the hardest of hard Brexits. No UK membership of the single market. No common customs union. One gathers from this speech that there is not even a guarantee post-Brexit of friendly relations between Britain and its former partners, with the Prime Minister (encouraged by warm signals from the US President-elect) seeking to move the UK into a pan-Atlantic orbit of populist, nationalist powers.

How did we get from then to now? Much of the explanation lies in the dynamics of our hyper-partisan modern politics. We have moved from an era where successful politicians were those able to heal the wounds of the populace and steer a middle course to one in which political advantage comes in simple messaging, doubling down on existing positions and satisfying the political base. In the UK case, a narrow majority for Brexit has thus been treated very differently than it would have been 20 years ago. Rather than read as a mandate for splitting the difference between pro and anti-EU forces, the referendum emboldened eurosceptics to move the goalposts, claiming a majority for ever-greater separation between Britain and Europe.

The ‘democratic mandate’ argument easily casts all those arguing for practical cooperation with the EU as potential enemies of the people, whether they be judges arguing for parliamentary control of negotiations, or pragmatic politicians, like the current Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, wary of losing European market access. The UK party system has fed this particular beast. Faced with a weak Labour opposition in a majoritarian electoral system, the Prime Minister has far greater incentives to appease eurosceptics within her own party than remain voters. As a result, moderating voices have been marginalised. Their great victory came last week, when the Chancellor, previously the best hope of europhiles, effectively gave up on his attachment to the single market, threatening radical changes to the British economic model as a viable alternative to the single market. Conciliatory noises towards Europe have turned to threats: a strategy the Prime Minister’s speech today continued.

As a result, while we have spent the last 6 months waiting for Brexit negotiations to start in earnest, these negotiations failed before they even began. Both sides have drawn lines in the sand in the knowledge that the other side could not possibly accept them. Facing the near certainty of a failed negotiation, the objective of both sides is now primarily symbolism and face-saving rather than meaningful negotiation. For the EU, ‘no deal’ means that their key objective – projecting the unity of the European project and the ‘indivisibility’ of the single market – will be achieved. Similarly, for the Prime Minister, this speech sets out an over-arching goal, an end to free movement, which a failed, or limited, deal (confined to a few key sectors like banking or auto-manufacturing) will again accomplish. As with political speeches past, this one is primarily about setting up a goal that can only lead to one outcome whatever the result: victory.

For British supporters of the EU, there remains one silver lining. Boxed in by rhetoric that Brexit was about restoring the sovereignty of the UK Parliament, the Prime Minister did today concede a vote to Parliament, not just on triggering exit negotiations but on the final Brexit ‘deal’ (if such a deal materialises at all). Perhaps the opponents of Brexit can use the next year or two to present a united front against complete separation, rejecting its terms, and forcing the Prime Minister to seek (most likely in 2018) a general election. Such an election – a different ‘democratic mandate’ – seems the only remaining hope of the UK altering its current anti-European course.

About the authors