Does Brexit really mean Brexit?
“Brexit means Brexit”
The quote by British Prime Minister Theresa May was an attempt to show the world her commitment to delivering on the referendum held in June 2016 and remove the United Kingdom from the European Union. However, the already complex task has been further complicated by indecision, opportunism from European member states and some fairly disastrous election results.
Public regret sunk in almost immediately after the referendum results were announced and are perhaps best exemplified by the words of an old Etonian (who shall remain nameless) when he said “I voted leave, but I didn’t actually think we’d bloody leave!” Polls in the days and weeks after the election showed that a second referendum would result in an astounding majority for “Remain.” Despite this, the consensus was that the British public had made their bed, and must now lie in it. The threat of a second Scottish independence referendum, which would then allow Scotland to join the EU as an independent state, seems to yoyo back and forth between an empty threat and a real possibility while an idea of London breaking away and remaining in the EU was as short lived as is was poorly thought out.
The current situation stands as this: Britain is, at least on paper, leaving the European Union, Article 50 has been triggered and negotiations are supposedly underway. However, the definition of Britain leaving the EU is very vague. Those supporting a so-called “Hard Brexit” would have the UK completely disconnect from the EU and start anew, with its own laws, immigration, economic and industrial policies. However, they face opposition from the “Soft Brexit” supporters who argue that the UK would settle for leaving in name only with a little more autonomy, but very much still be a part of the European complex, much in the way Switzerland operates today. The challenge in finding the right balance between the two options is that a “Soft Brexit” would cause the least economic and social upset, while, by the nature of the way the “Leave” campaign was run, the argument is that the general public voted for what would be considered a “Hard Brexit.”
Over the last year, one of the biggest criticisms of the British government’s handling of Brexit was the complete and utter lack of direction, planning and communication. Reports have suggested that until Article 50 was triggered, the Brexit plan was a sheet of paper with two lines of writing on it, hardly the work of a government that claimed it had been working tirelessly to bring the best possible deal to the British people. To this day, the most concrete information the government has given about the type of deal Britain will receive has been that “Brexit means Brexit.” In order to combat this uncertainty, Theresa May called an election to strengthen her majority and make Brexit negotiations easier. This wasn’t seen as much of a gamble, with the conservative party holding a double-digit lead over the seemingly hapless Labour party, led by “Mr. Unelectable” himself, Jeremy Corbyn. Early on in the campaign it seemed as if Mrs. May would achieve a Thatcher level landslide, especially when the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, muddled up her numbers and went from paying 10,000 new police officers £80 a month, to putting a quarter of a million on the streets on roughly the same budget. The disasterous radio interview provided fodder for latenight TV shows and sprung up a million different internet parodies. It seemed as if it would be one blow too many for Corbyn’s Labour, who have often been attacked as incompetent and unfit for leadership. However, Labour managed to pull off the recovery of the century, helped in part by Corbyn’s galvanisation of the youth vote and May’s robotic demeanour and unwillingness to pander to her core voter base. While Labour didn’t win the election, they wiped out the Conservative majority, cast doubt over the future leadership of the country and forced May to shell out £1 billion in an unholy union between the Conservatives and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to scrape a parliamentary majority.
Despite the domestic disasters, outside influences haven’t exactly helped the case for Brexit. While anti-globalist populist movements have often caused a stir on the political scene, even being in government in Hungary and Poland, they had never made a large impact on a powerful developed nation. Brexit changed that by symbolising the British people’s rejection of unfettered globalisation and sending a message that the people negatively impacted by it would not go quietly. The fears it would be the start of a domino effect only grew when the US elected Donald Trump, another anti-globalist nationalist, as president, marking the end of the pro free trade, liberal minded America of the Obama administration. A constitutional referendum in Italy, that was seen as a vote between a pro EU government and an anti-EU government seemed to choose the latter. By the time the Dutch elections rolled around, people were fearing the end of the European Union, particularly with the French elections not long after. Europe was able to breathe a sigh of relief after the nationalistic Geert Wilders was narrowly beaten, while Emmanuel Macron’s massive win over the far-right Marine Le Pen had seemed to finally stop the bleeding.
All of these events had significant impacts on Brexit. Trump’s election sent Europe into panic mode, especially after his claims that Britain would be the first in line for a trade agreement, reversing Obama’s pledge that Britain would have to “get in line” for an agreement if they left the EU. This buoyed Britain and led to May taking a hard-line stance against the EU, knowing she had a major backer in the US. This led to the EU publicly criticising Trump, while in true political fashion, courting him behind the scenes to jump ahead of Britain in the trade deal lines. When Trump eventually conceded and his administration suggested it would be the EU, not Britain that would be first to get a trade deal, it left May out in the cold, with no powerful backers and the bridges across the channel seemingly burned.
Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the French elections, combined with President Macron’s love of the European Union dealt another blow to Britain, as it provided a clear direction for a previously apathetic France, suddenly Germany has an ally that shares its vision of Europe. While Brexit seems to be a constant power struggle between politicians, the influence of private institutions cannot be discounted. One of the most important roles London plays in the world is it’s status of the financial hub of Europe, equal to only New York and Hong Kong. However, the uncertainty around Brexit, and the bank’s desire to get the best possible deal for themselves, has led to may financial institutions threatening to relocate, primarily to either Paris or Frankfurt. To add to the misery, those cities and their respective national governments have rolled out the red carpet for the banks, hoping to use Britain’s loss to become the next European financial centre in their own right. No one has lobbied the banks more than the French president. Macron, a former investment banker himself, has already laid out an extraordinarily capitalist financial policy, which includes weakened unions, lower corporate tax and reformed labour laws. He has issued open calls to young professionals from the UK and is working tirelessly to ensure they feel welcome. He has used Paris’s charm to outdo Frankfurt on a quality of life level, but he has also opened work spaces for start-ups, English language schools and provided tax and visa exemptions for foreign companies that want to relocate in France.
These factors make it nearly impossible for Britain to drive a hard bargain, as if their Brexit deal isn’t favourable for the banks, they will simply make the short train journey across the channel, where Macron will be waiting with fresh baguettes and champagne. Despite his attempts to drag business away from the UK Macron, ever the statesman, has said “the door is always open for Britain.” This hints that the EU, of whom Macron is set to become an integral member, would accept an amicable divorce in name only, allowing Britain to effectively operate as a member of the EU while technically delivering on its promise to leave.
As the deck continues to stack against Theresa May, it is unclear what is the best possible way forward for her, if she is even able to hold onto leadership of the country. With public opinion on Brexit worsening every day, and the wounds from a humiliating general election still fresh it seems as if May would be best placed to concede herself to a softer Brexit.
While the UK will be leaving the European Union no matter what, it is becoming increasingly likely that the outcome will be vastly different that the one promised by Nigel Farage and co during the referendum campaign. Despite Britain’s departure from the EU being official on paper, it is highly unlikely that Brexit will actually end up meaning Brexit.