Isle of Madness A Series of Miscalculations Has Brought Britain to the Brink
Brexit was to allow the United Kingdom to reclaim its former glory. Instead, the country's leaders have bumbled their way into catastrophe. Built on a false premise from the start, the UK's move away from the EU has been dominated by mistakes and miscalculations.
On Saturday of last week, the sun was rising over London when a blue bus set off along the shore of the Thames. Lucy Swale and Matilda Allan were on board, one with red hair, the other brunette. They managed to get themselves out of bed at 5:45 a.m. and jog through half the city from Islington to catch the double-decker. The bus, they believed, would carry them into the future.
"Dear MPs," its exterior read, "77 percent of us don't want Brexit -- signed, Young people." Lucy and Matilda will turn 18 in December. For their birthday, they want a vote. It would be their first.
And perhaps also the most important of their lives.
"We have to live with this the longest time," says Matilda. "But nobody asked us." She was 15 years old when a narrow majority of her compatriots voted to try their luck outside of the European Union. Several members of Matilda's family voted for Brexit. But "not everybody understood what they were voting for," she says.
She claims that it is only now, two-and-a-half years later, that many people realize the degree to which they were misled, lied to and manipulated. She argues that not only her, but also the almost one-and-a-half million young people who have reached adulthood since the referendum, have earned the right to a new vote. And Matilda is certain what the result would be. "I am angry."
That sentence can currently be heard, in different variations, across the United Kingdom. If there's anything uniting the generally indulgent Brits right now, it's anger.
For some it's anger at a political class that has made so many promises and kept so few of them. For others, it's anger at the nationalist tempters gambling away the country's future in a quest to reclaim past glory. There is anger at a government that no longer has the power to solve critical social problems. Anger that it's not over yet. And yes, also, self-directed anger.
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On Sunday, the remaining 27 EU member states endorsed Theresa May's divorce agreement and a declaration for a future relationship, after thousands of hours of negotiating. Measured against the historic nature of the move, it represents no less than a diplomatic masterwork. In no small part because the Brexit proposed in that deal would be so soft that it would take years before people really started to notice the change.
But it would also mean that little has been gained -- at least for the UK. Its future will remain as murky as it was before given that no one can predict how things will progress.
Any agreement with Brussels would only survive if a majority in the British House of Commons approves it. And nobody knows how that is going to happen. In London, a vicious battle has erupted in the shadow of Big Ben, which is covered in scaffolding, its bell currently indefinitely silenced. The frontlines snake across all parties to the point that they are barely discernable. New, absurd coalitions have emerged. Everyone claims to represent the only truthful position on Brexit.
Britain hasn't been united for a while now. Most Scots, Northern Irish and Londoners voted against Brexit, while a majority of Welsh and English are in favor of it. But all seem to know they will ultimately emerge from the situation in a weakened position.
The rift runs through entire families. In some, people are no longer talking to each other and in others they are talking over one another. Politicians are getting hate mail and death threats. In Westminster, conservative and center-left pro-EU figures are suddenly allying themselves against conservative and left-wing euroskeptics. Rumors of the possible establishment of a new centrist party are making the rounds.
Protesters unfurl a banner saying "Stop Tory Brexit, Free Movement For All" in the middle of Wesminster Bridge on Nov. 15, 2018.
The only thing just about everyone can agree on is that Prime Minister Theresa May must go. But she's still there, and has survived much longer than people expected. A coup against May by members of her own party was announced this week, but then cancelled for lack of plotters. Though perhaps it has only been delayed.
People on the continent are watching with astonishment, some even with condescension, at what is happening in London. In the past, the rest of Europe was certain British diplomats and officials were among the best in their field. And now? An entire country is degrading itself and many EU diplomats believe its political class has turned itself into a laughing stock.
But the situation is serious. The vote in the House of Commons is scheduled for Dec. 11, and the pent-up rage could blow up British politics, either intentionally or by accident. It would be an almost appropriate end to a years-long fight primarily defined by vanity, gross overconfidence and denial of reality.
Anyone trying to follow the trail of clues to its origins in order to better understand Brexit realizes that the politicians, activists and everyday citizens in London, Belfast and Brussels didn't expect this divorce process to be so protracted and painful. At many points in recent years, the right decisions could have been made, but in many cases, weren't. Brexit is largely the story of hair-raising mistakes.
Mistake No 1: Thinking Brexit Will Be Child's Play
This story also began with a bus. On May 11, 2016, a partly cloudy day, it drove through Cornwall, a pastoral earldom that looks so stereotypically British that cheesy romantic TV shows often film here. When the bus stopped in Truro, a city known for its cathedral, a man climbed out -- a man whose wheat-blond hair always looks like it has just been tousled.
Boris Johnson wagged around a Cornish pasty and said things that were too good to be true. Johnson, a former journalist, is a fantastic speaker. He spoke of a country that had sold its soul to Europe and had thus lost the global stature it deserved, of Brussels hucksters who straightjacketed the former empire by regulating pickle curvature. He talked about how quickly the country would thrive if it finally left all that behind it.
There were still six weeks left before the Brexit referendum. The red bus was emblazoned with the claim that the UK transfers 350 million pounds per week to the EU, which in the event of Brexit would be invested in the health system instead. No part of this sentence was true.
But many people in the country liked hearing this kind of thing. After eight years of brutal austerity set off by the global financial crisis, it isn't just the healthcare system that is feeling the pinch. House prices are climbing, wages are stagnating and homelessness is increasing, along with the exasperation felt by many. Johnson, who as mayor of London was partly responsible for the drastic inequality, knew how to channel this frustration. Somehow the EU was responsible for everything. He and his fellow campaigners claimed the block also wanted to incorporate Turkey, which would mean 1 million Turks streaming onto the island.
Brexit sounded so sweet, so promising in comparison. After more than 40 years of "subjugation," leaving the EU would mean only letting in the foreigners the country really wanted, and reactivating the old imperial trade routes to India, Australia and America. It would be a cinch.
Europe would beg not to be shunned by the new old superpower.
For non-Brits, the Brexiteers' chauvinist rhetoric may be hard to understand, but it is part of a long tradition. The Brits only hesitantly joined a united Europe in 1973. At the time, the plan's opponents had similar arguments to today's Brexiteers. Labour Party lawmaker Peter Shore later explained: "What the advocates of membership are saying is that we are finished as a country; that the long and famous story of the British nation and people has ended; that we are now so weak and powerless that we must accept terms and conditions, penalties and limitations almost as though we had suffered defeat in a war."
Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole wrote in his book, "Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain," that even at the time, the decision to enter the union was equated with a delayed defeat by the Germans, that they imagined the European alliance of nations as a kind of "soft-Nazi superstate." Many Brexiteers currently view things similarly.
They believe the country will finally be able to find its way back to its former glory. "EU politicians would be banging down the door for a trade deal on Friday," said Johnson, who would for a brief time later become foreign secretary.
"There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside," said David Davis, who later have a brief stint as Brexit minister.
"The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want," said Michael Gove, who would later become environment minister.
Were these all mistakes. Or lies?
The nostalgic nationalists told them so nonchalantly because none of them seriously expected that a majority of Brits would vote to leave the EU. It was easy to make these mistakes because their primary aim had been to exploit the referendum to win a fight within the Tory party. Ultimately, the people voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of Brexit. While the rest of the Europe unloaded its frustration with the status quo by swelling the ranks of right-wing populists, the Brits found their scapegoat in Brussels.
Mistake No. 2: Red Lines that Can't Hold
The second major mistake began when Theresa May stepped into Lancaster House on January 17, 2017. The classical building in the heart of London looks like it was purpose-built for holding important speeches. Film fans might know its ostentatious gold-and-red foyer from the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." The Lancaster House is also a symbol of the old British Empire.
When she stepped in front of the podium, decorated with the words "A Global Britain," May was an uncontested head of government. In the political turmoil that followed the Brexit referendum, all her competitors within the Conservative Party, including Boris Johnson, had eliminated themselves in almost slapstick fashion. May was the most popular prime minister in many years -- and, at the time, she didn't have any natural enemies left.
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at Lancaster House in London in 2017.
In the 42 minutes that followed, she was going to explain how, in concrete terms, she imagined Brexit. Given that her country had split almost 50-50 on the issue, she could have suggested a middle path: Leave the EU, sure, but remain as tightly bound to the group of nations as possible, like Norway. Nobody could prevent her doing that.
But she decided to take a different route.
May was home secretary before she became Britain's leader. In the previous years, she had done a lot to create, as she called it, a "hostile environment" for immigrants. People close to her said this was the only subject the often-wooden politician was passionate about. Remaining too closely connected to the EU would mean the UK would have to continue tolerating mass immigration from the continent. May didn't want that.
And so she chose the difficult option.
To the surprise of many, May formulated 12 clear goals at Lancaster House. The most important, in brief, were that the country was to exit the single market, get out of the customs union and out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. And foreigners? They were also to get out. In the future, the number of immigrants allowed into the country was to be no more than five figures.
May would later say that her stance represented what "British people want." But that wasn't true. The people were asked whether they wanted to leave the EU -- not how. Clearly, there wasn't just one way people wanted that to happen. And the more time that passed, the more it became clear that these many potential ways of exiting the EU were irreconcilable.
To give herself more freedom, May called for surprise elections in the spring of 2017.
Mistake No 3: That Snap Elections Would Strengthen May
She had always said she wouldn't do it, but the temptation ultimately became too great. The conservatives had been 20 points ahead of the quarreling Labour Party in the polls. A landslide victory would have guaranteed enough support for May that ardent anti-EU and pro-EU politicians wouldn't stand a chance of pressuring her in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Win big, and govern decisively, that was May's plan.
Rarely has a leading British politician miscalculated the situation so catastrophically. For May, it would become the most disastrous mistake of her leadership.
On June 8, 2018, after an abysmal campaign and an impressive showing by Labour, May lost her authority and her party lost its absolute majority. Instead of her bringing parliament under her control, the reverse happened. And even worse for her, the prime minister became dependent on the 10 MPs of the ultra-nationalist Northern Irish DUP party to keep governing.
From that point onward, the parliament, May's own fellow party members and the DUP would make each step she took toward Brexit torture. It was almost like the Tories were cursed: After Margaret Thatcher, after John Major, after David Cameron, another Tory prime minister was in danger of stumbling toward political annihilation over issues relating to the European Union.
But there was no replacement in sight. Even the man who clearly believed he would be a better prime minister didn't have a plan for his "glorious" Brexit.
Mistake No. 4: It Will Be Possible to Split Europe
At this point, Boris Johnson was still foreign secretary, and one evening far away from home, he was chatting with a small group when the subject came to Brexit. One of the people present was David McAllister, who was the head of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, and, potentially more importantly for Johnson, someone with the ear of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It got late, talk became looser, and at one point, Johnson asked McAllister: Ultimately, the Germans are going to help us, aren't they?
Johnson's question revealed an almost naïve misunderstanding of political rules -- and spoke to the Brits' fourth major mistake. For a long time, they believed Brexit talks would be conducted like negotiations within the EU -- a contract would be prepared by officials or a problem would be worked over for months, and then the 28 state representatives would cut the Gordian knot, with Merkel at their center.
The EU took this approach to several problems during the euro crisis. A similar 16-hour marathon summit decided the fate of the Greeks in June 2015. With Merkel's approval, the country was allowed to stay in the euro zone. May told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a Brexit dinner in April 2017 that she imagined Brexit negotiations would be similar in nature. She said she thought the first major issue, the future of EU citizens living in the UK, could be taken care of during the next summit.
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, arrives at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit meeting on April 30, 2018, in Dundalk, Ireland.
With this, May made it very clear that despite all of those years of membership, she understood little about the EU.
When London's negotiators realized there was no way around EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, they tried to bypass him through special diplomacy and reach out to the conciliatory, but tough French. At one point, they approached the government in Warsaw, which was worried about the future of the hundreds of thousands of Polish workers in the UK. On another occasion, they sounded out Berlin.
Many people in London believe to this day that the key to Brexit lies in the German capital. If push comes to shove, they firmly believe, the German car industry would call Merkel to reason. It didn't. And the British attempts at splitting up EU member countries came to nothing.
At EU summits, a degrading ceremony became habit: When the heads of state met over lunch or dinner, May was allowed, like an amuse bouche, to make supplications or threats, and was then politely escorted out of the room. At one point, Hungarian head of state Viktor Orbán said he felt ill that the EU is "treating a lady in this way." That was the extent of the group's protectiveness of her.
Mistake No. 5: The Ireland Issue Won't Be Decisive
The Brits' fifth and most fatal mistake, however, lay just beyond their own front door, on the island of Ireland. As happens quite often in Britain, Ireland hardly played any role at all when the Brits held the Brexit referendum. In the minds of many Brexiteers dreaming of reclaiming the UK's superpower status, the former colony was still a kind of backyard where, if in doubt, British rules would prevail.
Some thought the Irish would best follow their neighbor's lead and leave the EU. An Irexit -- why not? "We joined on the same day. Why assume we couldn't leave on the same day?" one Brexiteer tweeted. What ensued, as was so often the case, was not at all what they expected.
The hall at the Institute of Technology was filled to the brim, the atmosphere was tense. It was a Monday in April 2018. Michel Barnier was visiting Dundalk, a small city in Ireland, a few kilometers from the border to Northern Ireland. He wanted to see with his own eyes what was at stake if the border fences between Ireland and Northern Ireland were to go back up.
The location was well chosen, because when the Brits leave the EU on March 29, 2019, the people in Dundalk will suddenly be living on the EU's external border. Businesspeople could lose their delivery workers, commuters could be stuck in traffic for hours, but that wouldn't even be the worst of it.
In Northern Ireland, Brexit is a question of war and peace. The Catholic half of the population has been fighting for decades for unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south. The Protestant half is just as passionate about wanting to remain a part of the United Kingdom. For 30 years, both sides led a brutal civil war against one another, leaving around 3,500 people dead.
A billboard advertising pounds sterling to euros money changing services on May 1, 2016 in Newry, Northern Ireland.
It was only through the Good Friday Agreement that "The Troubles" finally ended in 1998. That peace has largely survived to this day, in part because Ireland and Northern Ireland are EU members, and the border between the two is barely discernable. It runs through cemeteries and apartment buildings. Billions in EU subsidy payments also played a large part in calming both sides' tempers.
In Dundalk, Barnier chose his words carefully, then said: "To be clear: without a backstop, there can be no Withdrawal Agreement." And, furthermore, "This is an EU issue, not only an Irish issue."
That statement drew hefty applause. This was what the people here were waiting for: The EU declaring Ireland's open border to be non-negotiable. Barnier had drawn his own red line to counter London's. Ireland had, then if not before, become the central point of conflict in Brexit negotiations -- and it would continue to be right to this day.
To prevent a hard border, the EU said that Northern Ireland could remain in the customs union and part of the single market for a certain period of time, the so-called backstop solution. It would only come into force if no free-trade agreement were reached between London and Brussels.
But who could guarantee that would happen? With the backstop, a customs border would run through the Irish Sea, and Northern Ireland would remain a de facto member of the EU and inch a little bit closer to the Republic of Ireland. Those notions were just as unacceptable to the Brexiteers as they were to the DUP, the Northern Irish nationalists.
For the British, it was an unfamiliar situation. Only rarely in the UK's history have the Irish held the levers of power -- and now they were negotiating with the UK as an EU member, part of a group of nations with 450 million inhabitants.
The hardliners were blustery but had few counterproposals. Their alternative was an invisible high-tech border control that would first need to be developed and thus far exists only in their imagination. Boris Johnson, May's biggest opponent, considered the Ireland issue to be, in any case, totally exaggerated. He argued it was a problem akin to managing London's congestion charge for cars driving in the city center. He may have a mind for pretty words, but not for details.
The British have become trapped by their numerous misapprehensions and contradictions -- and by their wishful thinking, which continuously bumps up against reality. Now, the country is paying the price for the fact that, from the very beginning, nobody really had a plan for Brexit because nobody really believed it would ever come.
For many in the UK, the EU was an excellent scapegoat over the years. Now, it's suddenly gone. Who could have possibly realized that it would be so complicated to cut off overnight a relationship that had grown over the course of decades and resulted in thousands of joint laws and umpteen thousand shared regulations?
At some point, May began realizing that she would not be able to defend the red line she had once so categorically drawn in her speech in Lancaster House. In early December 2017, she largely submitted to the EU proposals and the two sides agreed to a 15-page paper so that the negotiations could continue at all.
Point 49 of that paper marked the first appearance of a passage that remains contentious today. It reads: "In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement." The reference here, of course, is to Ireland and Northern Ireland.
By agreeing to the document, May bought herself some EU goodwill. It would take months for the Brexiteers to realize that their dream of a return to British world dominance was illusory. And when they did finally get it, they began screaming "treason!" But it was too late. May had long since charted a course for the softest Brexit possible.
Conclusion: There Will Be No Hard Break
Even if the realization came too late, May ultimately recognized that she couldn't make everybody happy. Her options through mid-October 2018 were extremely limited: Either surrender UK unity or give up on the idea of a "Global Britain."
The prime minister is nothing if not tenacious, and she could have tackled the situation powerfully if only she hadn't pressed ahead at the wrong time. If only. As it turned out, though, she spent the summer and fall of this year scampering through London and Brussels -- a "dead woman walking," as her adversaries sneered -- unable to make decisions. She made herself vulnerable to coercion from all sides: from supporters of the EU, EU skeptics, the DUP, the Scots and the opposition.
She knew she would ultimately have to reveal her cards, particularly on the Ireland question. But she also knew that doing so could ruin her, her party or her country -- and she knew that she wouldn't be able to save all three. So she dragged her feet.
Months passed during which negotiations stalled. Even Michel Barnier, the consummate diplomat, lamented at one point: "To negotiate effectively, you need to know what the other side wants."
In Britain, meanwhile, a new illness began spreading which came to be known as "Brexit fatigue." In a September survey, a majority of respondents agreed with the sentence: "I am not interested in the details of Brexit negotiations, I just want those responsible to get on with it."
But May continued to dither, until it was almost too late. Only in early November did the clarity emerge that Barnier and his team had long been pleading for: May had decided to prioritize UK unity over the Brexiteers' vainglorious dreams of domination.
In order to maintain the status quo in Northern Ireland, the entire UK will likely have to remain part of the EU customs union and in large parts of the single market for years to come. May has accepted a situation in which Britain will continue to be bound by EU rules pertaining to the environment, job protection, state subsidies and more. All those bureaucratic hurdles, in other words, the pro-Brexit camp blames for holding the country back from achieving its true greatness. Furthermore, Britain will have to continue paying billions into the EU budget.
The Continent and the UK will remain bound to each other. There will be no hard break.
The UK will, however, soon be able to curtail the influx of foreigners from EU member states. Many of those who voted in favor of Brexit are particularly adamant on that issue. May is aware of that and has emphasized that she considers it to be a critical issue as well. "This is the best possible deal," she insists.
In London, though, she is largely alone in that assessment. Those in British parliament who are positively inclined toward the EU have been left wondering what is good about a Brexit deal in which the country will have to essentially remain a part of the bloc without having any say in its rules. EU skeptics, meanwhile, believe that May has broken every single promise she made in the Lancaster House speech.
Brexiteers are complaining that their country will not regain complete control of its money, laws and borders for years to come. And who knows if it ever will? After all, the joint political declaration from the two sides on their future together is so brief and so vague that it is difficult to discern a single guarantee. Conservative Brexit hardliner Jacob Rees-Mogg has passed judgment by saying that the UK will become a "slave state" of the European Union.
Rees-Mogg recently called on his supporters to revolt. Everyone who loves their country, he urged, should call for a vote of no confidence against May. Thus far, though, the revolutionaries have been unable to muster sufficient numbers for the effort.
So often in the past several months, May's adversaries have fired at her anonymously, saying, for example, that she had entered the "killing zone" and should "bring a noose" to a meeting with Conservative Party lawmakers and that "she'll be dead soon." May condemned the attacks -- and continued to stay the course.
May will now present her deal to parliament before its Dec. 11 vote. And it looks unlikely she will achieve the necessary majority the first time around. EU leaders also see that as the most likely scenario.
As such, 10 Downing Street is apparently working on a highly risky plan that is, according to the London Times, being referred to internally as the "kamikaze solution." The idea is that, immediately following a parliamentary vote rejecting the current Brexit plan, the markets will plunge, as will the British pound. The country will teeter for a moment on the edge of the abyss. The resulting fear would break the resistance once and for all, according to the idea, allowing May to come back to parliament with a minimally changed deal.
It would be an extremely daring maneuver, the kind of thing no British prime minister has ever attempted before. And what would happen if it went wrong? Would a "no-deal Brexit" become an inevitability?
Interestingly, it was May herself who mentioned the possibility of a third alternative on several recent occasions: No Brexit. May has introduced the concept as a kind of warning, given that she too has noticed that the movement for a second Brexit referendum has been gaining momentum in recent months. In late October, around 700,000 people from around the country marched through London to underscore their desire for a new referendum. And their primary argument cannot be dismissed out of hand: Given that the fabulous Brexit Boris Johnson and Co. once promised now looks completely different, it is essential that British voters be allowed to pass their judgment on it.
It is primarily younger voters who have become increasingly adamant about ensuring their voices are heard in the debate over Britain's future. A number of initiatives have joined together under the umbrella organization People's Vote, which has its headquarters in London's Millbank Tower.
In mid-November, leftover jack-o'-lanterns were still on desks and cans littered the floor, the apparent remnants of a carnival game. A picture of David Cameron hung on the wall, looking as though it may have been a dart-throwing target. The offices were full of young people.
One of them was Richard Brooks, 26, who temporarily put his career on hold to ensure he remains an EU citizen. Let's be honest, says Brooks, founder of the For Our Future's Sake group. "All advocates of Brexit, basically old white men, will eventually be gone. We will still be here."
Despite all of its problems, Brooks says, the European Union is a project worth fighting for. "Europe is a concept I believe in. The EU binds countries together that were trading bombs and are now trading goods. After all, that's progress." Brexit is personal for him. And he said he knows many people of his age who feel similarly.
Brooks believes there is now a roughly 50 percent chance Brexit can be stopped. "If the alternatives are May's bad deal or a catastrophic no deal, then a People's Vote might be the only way out." According to a recent survey, 56 percent of Brits hold a similar view.
Even if Brexit were avoided, though, calm would not immediately return to this troubled country. In the decades-long debate over Europe, numerous leading British politicians have spent massive amounts of money and even more political capital on the issue.
There is much to suggest that a second Brexit referendum would produce a similarly narrow result as the first -- this time, though, with a slight victory for the Remain camp. The pro-Brexit crowd, though, would almost certainly not go away quietly. A revival of the right-wing UKIP party or a different populist group would be more than likely in such a scenario. An increase in xenophobia, already at uncomfortably high levels, would be probable as well.
Whatever happens, there will still be a lot of angry people out there, says pro-EU Conservative Anna Soubry, who just last week received a death threat because she expressed support for holding a second referendum. She says she is appalled and ashamed about what has become of her country.
The battle over Brexit has poisoned the United Kingdom. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be taught as a case study for political failure. Planning for a Brexit museum is likewise underway. Several activists have joined forces for the project, hoping to show how the United Kingdom took back its "sovereignty." Or not. Who knows, perhaps the museum will ultimately be home to a blue bus and a red bus.
It isn't clear when the museum will become reality. The initiators say they only want to open it once the wounds have healed. In other words, maybe never.