Since Britain’s vote to leave the European Union occurred nearly a year and half ago, it may already be forgotten that the “Brexit” process was launched with an act of pure governmental incompetence and a steaming heap of lies.
The June 23, 2016, referendum, which produced the surprising result that a majority of voters preferred to leave the EU, has resulted in the wrecked careers of one Tory prime minister — David Cameron, who staged the vote — and has the career of his successor, Theresa May, on a knife-edge, facing a confidence vote in Parliament as soon as this week. Several other ministers, including some who were the faces of the pro-Brexit campaign 2016, have resigned.
What’s bringing things to a head is May’s release of a proposed Brexit deal negotiated with the EU, which Parliament must approve before March 29. The proposal dissatisfies the “Remain” faction, which opposes any Brexit, and even many Brexit advocates, who complain that it doesn’t go far enough in severing Britain from relations with the EU. Some hard-liners say no deal is preferable to this deal, though not a few economists and business leaders believe that a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for a Britain left adrift without any trade policy at all.
The flaw in the pro-Brexit arguments is that they’re based on the notion that leaving the EU was any sort of coherent policy in the first place. To understand this folly, it pays to take another look at the original campaign.
The 2016 referendum was designed by a government that was fully confident that it would yield a “No” vote — that by a comfortable margin Britons would vote to stay in the EU. Cameron aimed merely to silence the anti-EU wing of his party by showing that the public remained foursquare behind Europe. So he provided for no relief valves.
The referendum was a straight majority vote on the sole question: Stay or leave? A wiser course would have been to require a supermajority vote to leave, with additional requirements that voters in Britain's component nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all agree. In that case, the Leave side would have lost, as only 52% of all voters opted to leave and majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.
The Leave campaign was fueled by outright lies and ginned-up panic about immigration and regulations coming from Europe. The most common fabrication was a claim that Britain paid 350 million pounds a week to the EU as the price of membership, and that once out of the EU the money could be spent on Britain’s National Health Service, which provides healthcare to all its residents.
But the number was a fabrication, as Dominic Cummings, one of the Vote Leave architects, later acknowledged. It was inflated to begin with and didn’t account for the fact that half of Britain’s contribution came back in rebates or EU-funded projects, that Britain reaped material benefits from membership, and that as an outsider, it would have to pay fees to participate in EU programs along with a steep departure assessment.
Under May’s agreement, Britain will have to pay the EU 40 billion pounds (about $51.4 billion) to start, with further payments down the line. The idea that any reduced spending will end up in the NHS coffers is a political fantasy. Still, Cummings recalled, the claim “worked much better than I thought it would.”
For the rest, there was anti-immigrant sentiment, stirred up by the likes of right-winger Nigel Farage of the fringe UK Independence Party. Perhaps not coincidentally, Farage has been a favorite of President Trump, another exploiter of fears of immigrants who has had him to the White House.
There also have been indications that the Brexit referendum was the target of the same sort of interference from Russia that infected the U.S. presidential election the same year, perhaps as a dry run.
That exposed the true goal of the Brexit promoters as the continuation of Margaret Thatcher’s dismantling of a liberal Britain. “The Brexit fantasy is of an ‘open’ and ‘global’ Britain, unshackled from EU regulation, that can lower its environmental, health, and labor standards and unleash a new golden age of buccaneering hyper-capitalism,” the Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole, a Brexit foe, wrote last week in the New York Review of Books. “This is a perfectly coherent (if repellent) agenda. But it is not what most of those who voted for Brexit think it is supposed to be.”
What also exposes Brexit as a fantasy is the alacrity with which its most prominent supporters bailed out after the referendum results were in and they found themselves tasked with actually executing a plan they never thought would be needed. Among them were the buffoonish Boris Johnson, a former London mayor who resigned as May’s foreign minister in July. He was followed out the door this month by Brexit Minister Dominic Raab, leading to scornful assessments from commentators accusing them of showing cowardice in the face of a challenge they know can’t be met.
“It is easier to be on the team that accuses the prime minister of failing to deliver majestic herds of unicorns,” wrote Guardian columnist Rafael Behr, “than it is to be stuck with a portfolio that requires expertise in unicorn-breeding.”
After sustaining months of attacks over the “softness” of her negotiations with the EU, May has received some praise for standing up staunchly in Parliament and public appearances for the deal she reached. But there’s no question that it leaves Britain in a weaker position as a trading nation than it was as an EU member.
The deal would leave the European Court of Justice, a frequent bete-noire of pro-Brexiters, in place as arbiter of trade rules that still apply between Britain and European countries. But henceforth Britain will have no voice in making them.
Nor would the deal fully end the free movement of EU citizens into Britain, a target of the anti-immigrant cadre. It leaves murky the status of trade across the border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, a part of Britain; Ireland and Britain reached an open-border agreement as part of the Good Friday pact of 1998. But that’s inconsistent with Britain being outside the EU and Ireland being in, which at least technically requires a “hard border” between Ireland and Ulster. May had said she wanted a new free-trade deal with the EU to take effect simultaneously with the official parting in March; she got no such commitment.
The pro-Brexit camp argues that the dire economic consequences predicted by the Remain camp have not materialized. To an extent they’re right. Job losses, especially in the vulnerable financial sector, have been only a fraction of what was forecast. But they could grow if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. Moreover, during the post-referendum period Britain’s economic growth has fallen from the strongest among the G-7 developed countries to the weakest, a trend to which Brexit surely contributed.
Possibly most damaging, Brexit has done incalculable damage to both of Britain’s leading political parties. May’s Conservative Party has become an unstable coalition of Remainers, Leavers, and skeptics of both camps. The Labour Party is similarly cleft. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, says the Brexit referendum is irrevocable, but his party also insists on a negotiated deal that would preserve all the benefits of EU membership — “This is either utterly delusional or, more probably, deeply dishonest,” O’Toole judges.