The Waiting Game Playing for Time After Brexit
Two weeks after the EU referendum, Britain's political elite is crumbling and the country still has no plan for Brexit. The next government -- and also the Europeans -- will have to pick up the pieces.
British democracy these days is reminiscent of a crumbling building. And that isn't just a metaphor. Parts of Westminster Palace, home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is wrapped in scaffolding and plastic tarps. The façade is brittle, water is seeping in through the roof and pipes are leaky. The renovations are expected to take years and cost billions. On Monday, the prime minister's spokeswoman had to repeatedly interrupt her weekly press briefing because of the hammering of workers outside.
Similar cracks are visible across the United Kingdom. The entire country is suffering from the hangover of a revolution no one thought possible. Since the Brexit vote, many assumed certainties have been called into question, like the idea that parliament should be the heart of democracy. Or the binding force of the major political parties. The war over who will become David Cameron's successor in the Conservative Party is playing out before the public's hungry eyes, with all the betrayal and intrigues that entails. Within Labour, the antipathy between the fraction and leader Jeremy Corbyn is so great that it could lead to the division of the party.
It's easy to lose track of all that is happening. Here's an abridged version of all that has taken place in the past two weeks: Britain's prime minister is resigning because he doesn't want to manage a crisis of his own making. His likely successor was then tricked by the justice secretary, who himself wanted to become prime minister but has failed on a grand scale. Meanwhile, members of parliament with the Labour Party are blaming their own leader for Brexit and Scotland is hoping for a second chance to vote for independence. Finally, the man responsible for unleashing everything in the first place -- Nigel Farage -- is sauntering into retirement before Britain's exit from the European Union is even complete.
Now, a woman is going to be left to clean up the mess left behind by her predecessor. On Thursday, Tory members of parliament selected two candidates, both women, to become head of the party. Party members will have until September to pick one of the two.
Theresa May, 59, currently home secretary, has the best chances of moving into 10 Downing Street. She's viewed as a Euroskeptic technocrat who has taken a hard line against illegal immigration and has very few allies in Westminster. After the boy clique from Eton and Oxford surrounding Cameron, she would represent a fresh choice for turbulent times.
Her challenger, the former banker Andrea Leadsom, 53, who is an opponent of the EU and backed by the Brexit camp, also wasn't seen by many as possible prime minister material until recently. But the outcome of the referendum has shaken British politics, ending the careers of prominent politicians and exposing a deep-seated nihilism.
Cracks in Society
Even during the referendum campaign, all sense of shame seemed to have vanished in the country, with lies peddled as facts. Now everyone is battling everyone, damn the consequences. London journalists are outdoing each other with comparisons to "House of Cards" or "Game of Thrones," but the political carnage in Westminster has almost reached a level that would be hard for fiction to beat.
Right in the midst of the tumult, a report by an independent commission on Britain's role in the Iraq war appeared, an immense document claiming that former Prime Minister Tony Blair drove his country into a war based on thin evidence.
Of course, the invasion of Iraq cannot be compared to the EU referendum. In Iraq, huge numbers of people were killed. In the Brexit referendum, it was the truth that died. But in both cases, an unscrupulous elite was exposed that would use whatever means necessary to retain or attain power. What began with Blair and continued with Cameron is the impression that the actors in Westminster care only about peddling their policies -- it's about spin. Power as an end in itself.
The EU referendum did not cause these cracks in society, it just helped to lay them bare. The gap between the liberal big cities and people in rural areas, between the young and the old, the educated and the less educated, between the establishment and the lower classes.
The referendum shook the foundations of representative democracy. Members of the House of Commons now face the task of facilitating a divorce they never wanted. They must face the question as to whether they still represent their voters. At the same time, snap elections are unlikely right now because neither the Tories nor Labour would stand to profit from them.
Either way, the House of Commons -- precisely the institution that the Brexiteers had supposedly sought to strengthen -- will have little say in the negotiations with Brussels.
Forget About Foreign Policy
One consequence of the June 23 vote is that Britain will be focused almost exclusively on itself for the foreseeable future. Large parts of the government will be involved in exit talks. It's very unlikely that any kind of coherent foreign policy will emerge under these conditions, not to mention the rapidly negotiated trade agreements with countries like India, China, Australia and the rest of the world that Brexit campaigners like Michael Gove promised over and over again. That's the yardstick against which the new government will be measured. But in terms of foreign policy, Britain can be written off for the next few years.
Initially, cutting the cord with the hated Brussels bureaucracy will create new layers of bureaucracy. Cameron has said that negotiations with the EU will be the greatest challenge for British public officials in decades. He has even appointed a Brexit unit in his Cabinet Office. Oliver Letwin, a cabinet minister, will lead the task force -- the man responsible for leading Britain out of the EU.
Letwin is currently bringing together experts from different departments, including the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. But even that won't be enough. The Financial Times reported this week that the government has requested assistance from London law firms and consultancies in preparing for Brexit talks. Britain only has 20 trade negotiators compared to 600 specialists in Brussels, the article noted. Another seemingly absurd consequence of Brexit is that Britain will now have to recruit specialists from abroad in order to help it part ways with the EU.
Government Failed to Plan for Worst-Case Scenario
On Tuesday, Letwin appeared before parliament after being summoned by the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was a minor appointment during a momentous week, but it also showed just how precarious the situation has become in the eye of the hurricane. Members of the committee had only one question for him: What's the plan for withdrawal? Letwin's answer: no idea. No one in the government had expected the worst-case scenario to materialize. The Bank of England and the Treasury are currently doing what they can to reassure investors and the financial markets. But that's it. Letwin is on his own.
It's conceivable that Britain could have a future relationship with Europe similar to what Norway has now, with access to the single market, but also the obligation to allow the freedom of movement for EU nationals -- a soft-landing Brexit. That, along with some limitations, is the variant that Theresa May would prefer. She has made clear that she would invoke Article 50 at the end of the year at the earliest were she to succeed Cameron. The negotiations could then last until 2019.
The alternative would be a free trade agreement similar to the one being negotiated with Canada. This would come with major disadvantages for the services and financial sectors, but it would mean that Britain would have the power to determine how many immigrants it allows into the country. This would be a hard-landing Brexit.
Politically, the EU referendum was the most expensive bad bet made by a British prime minister in decades. Cameron will go down in history like Lord North, the premier who accidentally lost the colonies in America, or Tony Blair, who has been known almost exclusively as Tony "Bliar" since the Iraq war. All three are tragic figures.
The challenge facing the new government will be that of reuniting a divided kingdom. In a number of regions in England, the people no longer have any faith in the government following the country's 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal and the billions spent to bail out the banks during the financial crisis. Many are only looking for an answer to questions of prosperity and social advancement: Will my life be better than it is today if I make an effort? Or is everything already lost no matter what I do?
A Decision Born Out of Spite
Cynicism is a disintegrating force in a society. The majority of British no longer trust their elites. At some point, Britain's economic pragmatism -- which always used to be a fixture -- disappeared. The population has lost faith in the state and the conformity it had following World War II. EU opponents noticed, and Brexit was born out of spite.
Is it still possible to prevent Brexit? The simple answer is: no. Lawyers working on behalf of EU supporters are currently reviewing whether parliamentary approval is required before the government can invoke Article 50 and start the exit proceedings. But even then, it seems unlikely that parliament would ignore the will of the electorate.
Over 17 million Brits voted in favor of leaving the EU, 1.3 million more than voted to stay. Even if many in Britain have since come to the conclusion that they don't actually want Brexit, the results of the referendum cannot be reversed. It would be good for the rest of Europe to accept this reality, as difficult as this may be given the howls of triumph from a populist like Nigel Farage.
Farage had never been more than a blustering heckler in the big pub of British politics. His departure from the political stage shows that he never wanted to take any responsibility. From his perspective, it was logical that he would disappear. The broader mistake had been not taking the people attracted by his message more seriously.
What's left now is the acrimony and the void. "I can't remember a time when there was so much anger so close to the surface in British life," historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in his column for the Guardian.
From the German perspective, it would be tempting to respond to the Brexiteers' triumph with defiance and firmness. In the short term, that might be satisfying, but it would be counterproductive in the longer term. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rightly wants to link Britain as closely as possible to the Continent for historic, economic and geostrategic reasons, because one thing has not changed after June 23: the country's geographic location -- and its importance as a market for German exports.
We Shouldn't Abandon Britain
As such, it would be prudent and correct if the Europeans played for time and waited until there is unity in Britain about what they want. A new government will not take shape before September. When it does, that government may come to the conclusion that it is better to convince its people of the advantages of more controlled immigration than to entirely scrap access to the single market. Germany in particular would have considerable power in those negotiations.
In the end, a new form of associate membership in the European Union could rise out of the ashes of the referendum. Many countries -- like Norway and Switzerland, but also Ukraine and Turkey -- aren't likely to ever be fully integrated into the European club. But it is in the EU's interest to have long-term relationships with them.
Europe has to find a way of not losing Britain entirely in the coming years. The 48 percent on the island who voted to remain in the EU are still there. That's almost half the country who are disappointed in the other half and are now looking to Europe. The greatest mistake possible would be to abandon this part of Britain.