Under even the best of circumstances, the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union will make life harder for the people of Britain and both parts of Ireland. But it seems increasingly likely that Brexit will occur under the worst of circumstances — with no agreement between the U.K. and the EU to cushion the economic and political damage.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth to suspend or “prorogue” Parliament from the second week in September to Oct.14, when she will deliver a speech outlining the government’s priorities. Johnson’s critics noted that the suspension will give members of Parliament even less time to debate and rally support for measures to prevent the U.K. from leaving the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement with Brussels. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, complained that Johnson’s move was “an outrage and a threat to our democracy.”
Johnson insisted that his motive in seeking the suspension was to end a session that had gone on too long and to focus Parliament’s attention on his government’s “bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda.” Besides, he suggested, there would still be time for Parliament to act if he were to conclude a withdrawal agreement with Brussels to replace the one negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, which Parliament repeatedly refused to approve.
But Johnson’s past statements suggest that he isn’t overly concerned about the consequences of a “no-deal” Brexit despite ample evidence that an abrupt rupture would be disastrous for the British economy. In campaigning for the Conservative Party leadership, Johnson promised to take the U.K. out of the EU on Oct. 31 “do or die, come what may.” He has blithely suggested that any problems associated with Brexit — such as the possible reimposition of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — can be solved by technology and a ”can-do spirit.”
Such insouciance delights Brexit supporters, who have been frustrated by the delay in implementing a 2016 referendum in which 52% of voters favored abandoning the EU. It also has won Johnson the admiration of President Trump, who tweeted Wednesday that “Boris is exactly what the U.K. has been looking for.” (Trump also predicted — perhaps correctly — that Corbyn would be unsuccessful in seeking a parliamentary vote of “no confidence” in Johnson.)
But there is a reason why implementing the referendum has been arduous. Extricating the U.K. from the intricate commercial, legal and political relationship it has developed with the rest of Europe is a devilishly complex proposition — a reality about which many “Leave” voters were blissfully ignorant. It’s no accident that the withdrawal agreement May negotiated with Brussels was 585 pages long — and still didn’t permanently define trade relations between the EU and the U.K.
Furthermore, despite Johnson’s gospel of “can do,” many who have labored to bring peace to Northern Ireland fear that Brexit will undermine the peace process by erecting barriers between the North, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation that will remain in the EU. That’s why the agreement May negotiated was accompanied by a “backstop” provision that would have aligned the U.K. with the European customs union (and preserved a close relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU) until final arrangements were agreed to.
Johnson has declared the backstop dead. But if he intends to move forward with Brexit, he needs to take seriously the importance of negotiating some alternative arrangement with the EU that will inspire confidence in those who have worked to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
Ideally, voters in the U.K. would be given an opportunity to reconsider their decision to withdraw from the EU in light of the enormous difficulties that have emerged since 2016. Unfortunately, a second referendum remains a distant hope. But if Brexit is inevitable, “no deal” is not an option. Johnson should apply his “can do” philosophy to avoiding that outcome.