Brexit Confusion A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma
Six months after the EU referendum, the government in Britain still has no plan for leaving the bloc. What does Brexit really mean?
They came here in the search for answers. Students, pensioners, married couples, men looking weary after a long day's work, women holding a glass of red wine -- around 60 people altogether. Members of London's middle class are gathered at the Tabernacle, a former church in the Notting Hill neighborhood. They have a lot of questions. What will happen when Britain leaves the European Union? Will the country become poorer? And what kind of society will develop here at Europe's periphery?
Entry to this evening's event in Notting Hill, "The Brexit Effect: How Brexit Will Change Life, Work, Politics and Business in the UK," cost 26 pounds (30 euros) and similar events are springing up all over the country these days. There are podium discussions and conferences -- and every single one of these events offers proof of the vacuum that exists following the referendum, and of the considerable thirst for answers. There are also a dozen Brexit books on the market as the publishing industry seeks to fill the gap. At least someone seems to be profiting from the country's departure from the EU.
A man wearing a dark suit bounces onto the stage. Anand Menon is a professor for European politics at London's renowned King's College. Another expert. If there's anyone who knows the future -- at least the contours of it -- then it's Menon. But Menon also seems at a loss. Sorry, he says, he has no idea what will happen.
An admission price of 26 pounds for answers that nobody can offer. Not on this evening, not in Notting Hill and, indeed, nowhere in Britain. So far, Theresa May's government hasn't produced anything providing even the remotest clues about where this journey will take Britain. Instead, the prime minister's strategy has focused on empty platitudes. "We will make a success of it," "Brexit means Brexit" or "I want to have the best possible Brexit deal."
But with each passing day, a growing number of contradictory messages come out of her cabinet. Will Britain remain a member of the customs union? Will the country continue to pay into the EU budget? Will EU citizens one day be deported from Britain? At the beginning of December, May even made an appearance on the deck of a Royal Navy ship in the Persian Gulf, telling her audience: "I want a red, white and blue Brexit."
This could be funny if the lack of planning didn't have such grave consequences. In less than three months' time, May plans to trigger Article 50, officially notifying the European Union of Britain's intention to withdraw from the bloc. In the meantime, prices for food and consumer goods have risen, in part because the British pound has depreciated significantly since the end of June. The government is expecting a budget shortfall of 122 billion pounds over the next five years, with those that have the least likely to suffer the most. May has said she will hold a major speech this month outlining the form of Brexit she is aspiring to.
Over six months after the Brexit referendum, Britain finds itself in a state of internal unrest. The prime minister has promised reconciliation, but little of it can be felt. Even her own government officials are rebelling. Last Tuesday, Britain's unnerved ambassador to the EU in Brussels, Ivan Rogers, resigned from his post -- a huge loss given that no one else knows Brussels and the EU partners as well as he does. His successor will be a former British ambassador to Moscow, a diplomat who last held a job in Brussels some six years ago.
In addition, most members of British parliament are opposed to a hard Brexit. A nonpartisan, unofficial coalition has formed in the House of Commons seeking to prevent Britain from severing all its ties to the EU. "It's a phony war," Anand Menon says from the stage in Notting Hill, adding that the battle between Brexiteers and their opponents is dirtier than ever. "It's like 1940, only with Twitter." He adds that those looking for certainty and security should perhaps consider emigrating.
In the back right of the auditorium, a hand goes up. "I own a home in Spain," says on older man. "What now?"
Indeed. What now?
The question hangs over the country like a gathering storm. The strange part is that in Westminster, the center of power, a sort of ignorant serenity prevails despite the uncertainty. If you listen to politicians, advisers and those who fought for Brexit, you encounter a united front of unshakeable optimism. It seems as though a large part of the government has set up a parallel universe in which the laws of logic have been suspended and everyone believes that everything will somehow go well -- as long as one keeps smiling.
This gap between wish and reality could be observed at the EU summit in mid-December. In Brussels, the prime minister stood among her counterparts as though invisible, completely ignored. All around her, summit participants pecked each other on the cheeks, but nobody spoke to the prime minister and she wasn't invited to a joint dinner. On Twitter, people gave her the nickname "Theresa No Mates."
May has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent months. She voted for Britain to remain in the EU, but only weeks after taking office she wasn't even willing to provide EU citizens living in Britain with a guarantee they could stay. In October, she allowed her home secretary to speculate about the possibility of making British companies provide lists of their foreign employees and her health secretary raised the specter of firing doctors from other EU countries. As often happens with converts, it looks as though May is seeking to become Britain's most passionate Brexit advocate.
In her new year's address, she softened her tone somewhat and spoke of a "truly united Britain" she would like to build. Politically, however, she remains a hardliner. She insists that she will secure the right deal for Britain once she sits down at the Brussels negotiating table.
Alienation in Europe
In Britain, this aura of toughness has helped, particularly because she has the right-wing Daily Mail, with its 3.5 million readers, on her side. But it is damaging her in the rest of Europe. Britain will be dependent on the goodwill of other EU countries if May wants to conclude separation talks by 2019. She will also need to bridge the gap until a British-European free trade agreement can be reached.
Gradually, the recognition is growing, even within the Brexit camp, that the clean break from the EU that many dreamed of will never happen. Even Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, recently said that Britain may ultimately remain a partial member of the EU customs union. "At the moment, everything and nothing is possible," says Stephen Booth. He has agreed to an interview in his office near Downing Street, which is packed full with stacks of paper and cardboard boxes. These are the offices of Open Europe, a small, government-aligned organization with six employees who played a central role in the referendum. Booth and his colleagues feed ideas to the powers that be and prepare political options for the government. Open Europe supports a broadening of the free trade zone, albeit without the protectionism and centralized bureaucracy of Brussels. In other words: It supports a Europe minus much of the EU.
'We Want To Continue Playing a Role in Europe'
Booth says the debate over withdrawal is too one-dimensional and too focused on the single market, the customs union and money. He argues the British government should instead widen its view and speak more fundamentally about security on the continent, about strategies for dealing with Russia and Syria, about British migrants on the continent and EU citizens living in Britain. In other words, issues where the British stand to gain something.
"We want to continue playing a role in Europe," says Booth. It's an appeal to May to finally move ahead and develop a Europe strategy. Booth believes that Britain would profit if the Brexit debate were expanded to include security and foreign policy. But the problem is that the government is already reaching the limits of its capabilities and has too few people at its disposal. Cuts in recent years have seen the number of government employees fall to the lowest level since World War II.
In addition to the prime minister, one other person will stand at center stage in Britain next year who not many people outside of Westminster know -- a man with white hair, a high forehead and a malicious smile. David Davis enters a conference room in parliament on a cloudy afternoon. As Brexit minister, it's his job to make the best of the chaos. Twenty-one members of parliament on the Exiting the European Union Committee are staring out at him from the semi-circle. The parliamentarians are the checks and balances on Davis and his ministry. Unfortunately, there's not much for them to monitor at the moment -- for Davis, too, lacks a plan. Perhaps that explains his easygoing approach.
The first question asked this day is: When will Davis present his plan for Brexit negotiations?
"As soon as we can," Davis says, but it will be unlikely before February.
Is he seeking a transitional arrangement until a free trade agreement is ready?
"It depends what you mean by transitional arrangements," he responds.
And what would happen if Britain were unable to come to an agreement with the EU after two years?
"We'll do contingency planning for all the likely outcomes," he says. He doesn't offer anything more concrete.
Davis is 68 and negotiating Brexit could well be his last job. Why should he allow his mood to be spoiled at the twilight of this career? He speaks of Turkey, the customs union, Gibraltar and the European Medicines Agency with the unconcerned attitude of a man about to go into retirement. His ministry employs 330 people, the best his country has to offer, he says. After two hours and 123 questions, the members of the committee leave just about as informed as they were when they arrived.
Britain has six different areas it must negotiate in coming years, including the complicated split from the EU, a British-European free trade agreement, an interim agreement and the United Kingdom's own seat on the World Trade Organization. It will also have to conduct talks with the 53 countries with whom the EU has reached trade agreements as well as consultations over future cooperation with the EU in areas of policing, intelligence and security issues. They will be the most complicated negotiations in British history, with thousands of pages of documents.
Astonishingly, those people who were particularly loud in the run-up to the referendum have now gone silent. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson did give a speech about foreign policy and a "Global Britain" at the beginning of December, but he too is lacking a precise idea on how negotiations with the EU should be handled.
May's Success Measured on Brexit
The real work on Brexit is taking place not at David Davis' ministry, but at 10 Downing Street. That's where May has convened a cabinet committee that is drafting guidelines for Brexit and making decisions. The committee is the nucleus of the government's work. It meets behind closed doors and has 12 members, comprised of an equal number of Brexit supporters and opponents. But it appears it is even dawning on this committee just how massive is the task at hand. The Times of London quoted one member of the committee as saying: "Everyone chips in, the PM sums up and everyone staggers out saying how difficult it is."
Theresa May knows her success will be measured on whether Brexit is accompanied by marked improvements for Britain. She must successfully negotiate at least three things: First she has to reduce the number of EU immigrants entering the country. Second, the European Court of Justice must be stripped of any influence over British law. Third, the British contribution to the EU needs to be significantly lower than the 11.5 billion euro sum that London transferred to Brussels in 2015. Anything less than that would be unacceptable to the hardliners and to the Daily Mail.
Daniel Hannan says the British have two choices. Either the EU can continue to provide Britain with access to the internal market with limitations or the result will be a cold, hard Brexit.
Hannan is a Tory member of the European Parliament and a pioneer of the Brexit movement. One of his hobbies is peppering his speeches with lines from dead English poets, which lends a flowery opulence to his language. Hannan was the man who, starting in the middle of the 1990s, elevated the absurd idea that Britain could leave the EU from the inconceivable to the realm of possibility. Brexit is his life.
He wrote books campaigning against EU membership and also convinced fellow party members of the merits of his battle. In contrast to Nigel Farage, who never escaped his reputation for bar-room loutishness, Hannan spoke about free trade. He says his dream country would have low taxes, few rules, a small administration and, as Hannan puts it, a "streamlined welfare state."
For him, Brexit is like a prisoner being released after decades in jail and stepping into the sun for the first time. Hannan is a romantic and, like all purists who are good orators, is by no means harmless. If the British government doesn't get what it wants from the Europeans, then it will have to drastically lower corporate taxes in order to remain competitive, he says. Under that scenario, Hannan says he would expect "a radical economy similar to the one in Singapore."
Hannan dismisses the complaints about the lack of certainty following the Brexit vote as the moaning of defeatists. He sees rising prices as a necessary evil on the path to a better tomorrow. "Of course there are winners and losers from currency fluctuations," he says. But he can also speak of companies that have announced investments. "McDonald's, for example, has moved its headquarters from Luxembourg to London."
Britain's Next Stroke of Luck?
Listening to Hannan, one gets the impression that Brexit is just as fortuitous for Britain as was winning World War II. But he too remains vague regarding what the future might bring. In his most recent book, he made the case for membership in a reformed European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the goal being a loosely regulated free trade zone as well as bilateral treaties with countries like India, Australia and Canada.
So where do things go from here? It cannot be ruled out that talks between the EU and Britain will fail. It might be that Britain's withdrawal will end in disaster -- for both sides. It could also be that we wind up with a "train-crash Brexit," as one Financial Times columnist worries. All of this is possible. Nobody knows for sure.
The confusion helps opponents of Brexit. A few recently started a further legal offensive against the British government before the High Court with the aim of preventing a hard break with the EU. The fighting is becoming more intense. The losers in the referendum don't intend to give up easily, whereas some of the winners are already sitting in cozy positions or founding consulting firms.
Daniel Hannan was just in the United States, Guatemala and Colombia to promote free trade. He wants to start a foundation. He's helping to spread the Brexit message to the world.