The Last Piece on Brexit? 

Anti-Brexit demonstrators outside the British Parliament, London. April 3, 2019. ChiralJon Flickr photo


After careening through British politics and continental nightmares like a runaway Routemaster, Brexit came to a screeching halt in April when the long-suffering Donald Tusk announced a Brextension until Halloween. Luckily, we have veteran diplomat and our own senior foreign policy pen Jeremy Kinsman to fill our Brexit fix.


Jeremy Kinsman 

Prologue: April 2, 2019, email from editor to writer on contribution to next issue: “You might want to take a bite out of Brexit— after the next big cliff-edge, hair-on-fire deadline…….”

Writer to editor: “Sure. The LAST piece on Brexit. Unless it’s not. It could go on. For ever and ever.”

Editor: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”

At their summit in Brussels on April 10, Britain’s Brexit-fatigued European Union partners, faced with Prime Minister May’s inability to get her Parliament to agree to her deal to exit the EU 27, and with the prospect of a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit, agreed to a new deadline of October 31. No one knows if by then Parliament can produce a majority in favour of any specific option, though a hefty majority opposes a no-deal Brexit.

A lot of Conservative Party MPs want Prime Minister Theresa May gone for mucking up Brexit and because she seems to be entirely without the emotional intelligence that a political leader needs. She leapt into a snap general election in 2017 to win a personal mandate but her tone-deaf and wooden performance lost the Conservatives their majority. Her political authority has been drained by successive blunders. Instead of bringing the confused and divided country together, she played only to her threatening right-wing, braying that “Brexit means Brexit,” when actually the whole mess turns on the fact there is no general agreement on its meaning at all.

Her own exit deal, which was laboriously and more or less secretly negotiated over two years with Britain’s former EU family, has been rejected by Parliament three times. But she stubbornly believes it can still become acceptable to a majority in the House of Commons if they are faced with a punishing “no-deal” Brexit as the only alternative. 

In Canadian hockey terms, this is called “ragging the puck”—to run down the clock. It is also perilously close to the popular if clinically dubious definition of insanity attributed variously to Mark Twain and Albert Einstein; doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This sad outcome caps a long history of nativist ambivalence about Europe, even outright antipathy in certain circles. The Duke of Wellington was proud to say, “We have been, we are, and I trust we always shall be, detested in France.”

In 1955, when the Europeans’ defining political project was forming, Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend advised Ministers that “On balance, the real and ultimate interest of the U.K. is that the Common Market should collapse, with the result that there would be no need for the U.K. to face the embarrassing choice of joining it or abstaining from joining it.” Now, they will have done both. After French President Charles De Gaulle—who suspected the U.K.’s core attachment was to the U.S.—twice vetoed U.K. applications to join the European project, the U.K. joined in 1972. But they remained ambivalent as it became the European Economic Community, and ultimately the European Union, pushing back against closer integration, while promoting enlargement to dilute the EU’s deepening centre. 

The pro-Brexit notion that Britain is oppressed under the boot of the EU’s laws and institutions is hogwash. Though the Maastricht treaty (the 1992 Treaty of the European Union) avowed an “ever-closer union,” the EU project never aimed for federation but remained a union of states whose national parliaments are ultimately supreme. Members chose to pool sovereignty in functional matters of shared interest as an obvious source of strength in an interdependent world. The British parliament exercised the right to opt out of the European social model, EU labour codes, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, and such defining EU-wide undertakings as the Euro and the Schengen Treaty on open borders.

Unfortunately, in the referendum campaign David Cameron gambled would neutralize dissident nationalists in his party (“those bastards,” according to prior PM John Major), he never exploded anti-European myths, or underlined the Union’s achievements. He presented U.K. membership as a commercial contract, devoid of value-driven meaning beyond convenience.

London officials received ample advice—including from referendum-scarred Canadians—of the dangers of referenda in parliamentary democracies: avoid simplistic binary questions; keep the outcome advisory, not decisive; and don’t bind the nation’s future for generations by a majority of 50 percent plus 1. 

British political strategists and officials believed they knew better, and anyway, Cameron never thought he’d lose. They didn’t see that the Leave option in separations has more emotional traction than the status quo. It milked the culture of concocted nostalgia for a sentimentalized heritage that fuels TV programmers’ schedules every evening. Post-war and post-imperial Britain never caught up with reality. This explains why the genuine drama of the war itself is re-lived again and again.

One of Theresa May’s goofs on becoming prime minister was to rush to Washington to gush to President Donald Trump, who had unequivocally supported Brexit, denouncing the EU as an adversary of the U.S. Theresa May saw his enthusiastic welcome of the referendum’s outcome as a politically useful reassurance that a new “global Britain” could start its post-EU adventure with the guarantee of the mother of all bilateral relationships. Much of Britain was aghast at her hasty invitation to him to visit the U.K. Trump’s approval rating in Britain is about what it is almost everywhere else, well below water. After a delicate downgrading of its trappings, Trump made a truncated visit, barely skirting London where a million people and one infamous Baby Trump balloon demonstrated against his presence. He has since periodically derided British pluralism and even vaunted the prime ministerial credentials of May’s principal rival, narcissistic showman Boris Johnson. 

Now, May is holding onto her job by her fingernails. Un-”exonerated” by Mueller, Trump also has his back to the wall. So, one, another, or both of the political principals has revived the invitation for a full state visit, formally from the Queen (who surely at this stage deserves better). Thus, in early June, en route to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Trump will attend with PM May a nostalgia-laden and image-boosting event June 3 in the harbour of Portsmouth, billed as “one of the greatest military spectacles in recent history.”

Ever since President Kennedy’s solid support for European integration jarred PM Harold Macmillan (in 1958 he had said to De Gaulle of the emerging Common Market, “I beg you to give it up.”), British prime ministers have registered unequivocal U.S. support for U.K. membership in the EU, in a formula for divided affection. Tony Blair put it this way in an address to the U.S. Congress in early 2001: “People ask me to choose between Europe and America. I won’t. I’ll have both.” (Two days earlier, when he spoke in Ottawa’s House of Commons, he spoke of “North America,” but what the hell…) Fatally, Blair tried to get too much of both, investing politically in promoting U.K. leadership of the EU and then surprisingly fronting George W. Bush’s fraudulent claims of Iraqi WMD to justify a divisive Anglo-American invasion that catastrophically turned the Middle East into a failed region. It destroyed Blair’s reputation as well as the Labour Party, which returned to the pre-Blair class dogma that eventually vaulted the retro socialist Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership. Now, the British public turns anguished eyes from May to Corbyn, who leads in the polls, and then to May’s Conservative Brexiteer challengers, the preposterous Johnson and the pantomime Victorian aristo-fabricator, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Many feel betrayed by failure of the whole national political class.

Having followed passionate and often intelligent debates over the Brexit dilemma in the U.K. Parliament, I see instead benches of patriotic, honest public servants trying to knead the political machinations of leaders’ ploys and prevarications into a national outcome of dignity and decency. The basic dichotomy of English identity remains. In London, Britain’s role as a European lead nation is obvious, as is its advanced pluralist society. Walking the Wiltshire hills, rural England seems timelessly distant from both Europe and from immigrants. Immigration was not a top U.K. public preoccupation until the racist campaigns of Trump buddy Nigel Farage and his UKIP mob made it a false one. Cameron and his threatened party threw them the bone of the fateful referendum. Britain is an over-crowded island, not “overrun” by immigrants, and certainly not by workers from the EU, without whom the National Health Service and most restaurants and pubs, as well as plumbing, would cease to function.

Is there a happy ending to this fiasco? The old British adage, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” (or woman) might still loosen the political deadlock of dueling, Conservative Party egos. The House of Commons that has been trying to wrest control from the manipulative and embattled crew at Number 10 may yet vote to support a customs union with the EU or another formula that would keep essential U.K. interests intact, including an open Irish border. Britain would still sacrifice its enormous leverage as a lead member of a 500-million strong European Union, and could be adrift diplomatically for a generation. But the U.K. would be more likely to keep Scotland and Northern Ireland in, and with wise and innovative policies could channel its human capital toward strong business outcomes.

Brexiteer hardliners and May herself decry any such compromise as betraying “the decision of the British people” to seek freedom from all EU regulations and end free movement of EU workers into the U.K. (as if that is what 52 percent meant by voting “leave”). Alternative scenarios are not rosy. Given the shambolic process, in London and with EU partners, relations with Europe are apt to be bitter for years without a successful compromise. Just as the world is beginning to look at Trump’s reign in America as being not in spite of good Americans but because of dumb Americans, so the British image in Europe is deteriorating. The 27 remaining EU members want to move on to their own pressing challenges. Wistful Euro-regrets about Brits leaving the family (though British Eurocrats are opting for Irish and Belgian passports in droves), cede to overwhelming impatience to get it done. 

In Brussels this month, I found a certain humility and determination to address reforms, especially the need to correct the impression of a democratic deficit in EU decision-making. Leaders accept that with the U.S. evacuating leadership and China bristling with ambition, the EU also has to face up to its internationalist leadership responsibility (to which Canada is gravitating as a core ally). The Brexit experience has at least turned off any urge anywhere else in the EU to imitate pulling out. Public support for the EU is higher than in years. The populist nationalism of which hard Brexit and Trump are partnered versions has probably hit its high-water mark, though populists Salvini, Orban, LePen, and their new guru of destruction, Steve Bannon, may not yet have the memo. 

What about the populist nationalists ruling Britain’s Conservative party? Once they can no longer pin all and any grievances on the EU, will their bluff collapse? And who will take it from there? 

Britain’s many friends hope for the best.  

Contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the U.K. and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley.