Last Summer, the United Kingdom voted for a new idea. There was not a lot of detail, but the headlines were clear – an end to bureaucratic Brussels interfering in Britain, less immigration, and a reassertion of a perceived native identity. One year on, the project is in crisis as those who support it attempt to define what it actually means, often contradicting themselves in the process, and dumbfounding their incredulous European Union partners. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. New words are being used to help understand both the process and the objective. The objective (Brexit) was originally defined simply as Brexit, the implication being that ‘you all know what it means, even if we can’t put words on it’. While that had the benefit of keeping everyone at least superficially happy (ah, so the Prime Minister agrees with me!) it belied a hidden and constitutionally awkward acknowledgement: Brexit meant different things to everyone.
For a long time politicians focused on the objective of Brexit – leaving the customs union, and the single market. It would mean removing obligations under European Law, re-establishing the supremacy of the Supreme Court. All sorts of attendant treaties – such as the Fisheries Convention – would similarly be dispensed with. The problem with defining an objective as a negative immediately began to crop up. The only positive element of the objective statement was that a new post-Brexit trade deal would be negotiated, but even the scope of that was not clear. The immediate to-and-fro led to slippage on the absolutist position: co-operation on terrorism would not be compromised; the European Court of Justice would not be immediately jettisoned; and so on.
Given the challenges of defining a fixed objective, the language has shifted to process. Brexit could take ten years, the UK’s top diplomat in Brussels told the PM. Words like ‘transition’ and ‘implementation’ crop up more and more. In truth, for all of the processes with which Britain has ties to Europe – travel, trade, policing, climate change, farming – none is going to simply stop. Each will continue, and collaboration with Europe will continue so long as Britain retains a need for travel and trade in Europe, and for talent, intelligence and technology that it cannot produce at home. Brexit seeks in its objective to tear down the infrastructure of collaboration that supports those needs; in its process, Brexit will seek to establish a redefined infrastructure of collaboration. What that means, essentially, is that this is a renegotiation. It isn’t a ‘leaving event’; it is merely a re-basing of the fundamentals of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
Now, comparing that reality to the vote for an idea is not easy. Brussels will remain bureaucratic and involved; it’s unlikely that immigration will fall, short of an economic collapse in Britain; and the weakening of native identity will continue its inexorable course that it a condition of modernity (not the EU). Brexit, therefore, will fail for those hard-line, Britain-first, xenophobic nationalists. It will fail for those seeking a return to some imagined bucolic past, amidst the joys and riches of empire, forgetting the horrors of War, and the economic collapse / IMF intervention in the 1970s. While Brexit may succeed in re-positioning Britain in Europe, navigating that path will be an extraordinarily difficult political task for Britain’s leadership.