It is the 31st of October and a rare sunny afternoon in Parliament Square.
Nobody here in London seems to be happy with Brexit. Outside Parliament, protestors are chanting pro-Brexit slogans such as “Freedom” and “Out with the traitors in Parliament”. Inside Parliament, the different parties are at each other’s throats.
Brexit was supposed to happen today. The Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than let the UK remain in the EU. Why then, is this prolonged divorce still trundling on? And why does it matter to us living the other side of the Atlantic?
The period of negotiation between the UK and the EU was extended to October 31st by Theresa May’s Conservative government after she failed to get her government’s deal past Parliament. Since then, we have changed Prime Ministers and kept roughly the same deal, but for one big difference: Northern Ireland.
Decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland (NI) ended in 1997 with the passing of the Good Friday Agreement, which made the armistice between Irish nationalists and pro-UK unionists official. Theresa May’s deal included a clause called the NI “backstop” which would have undone some elements of the Good Friday Agreement, raising the possibility of renewed violence in NI. This backstop would have kept NI within the EU customs area, drawing a distinction between it and the rest of the UK - something that NI Unionists like the DUP strongly oppose.
In order to sell his deal before parliament, Boris Johnson altered Theresa May’s Brexit deal at the proverbial eleventh hour. This itself was an achievement, as EU officials had previously ruled out renegotiation. In order to avoid a potential no-deal Brexit, the EU negotiators were reluctantly drawn back to the table. They then rehashed several key points on the deal, the most prominent change being the removal of a backstop on the NI border. But just because the EU and Johnson’s team could negotiate a new deal does not mean that said deal will have any impact. There are other barriers to implementing the deal, the biggest hurdle of all being a recalcitrant and divided parliament.
Despite being accused of being a British version of Donald Trump, Johnson has seemingly played his hand very carefully. By building up fears and hopes of a no-deal Brexit through rhetoric and simply refusal to negotiate, he convinced most of his Brexiteer (pro-Brexit) allies and Remainer (pro-Remaining in the EU) opponents that he was willing to run the clock out and let the negotiation period expire. This so-called “no-deal Brexit” would have abruptly cut off the close political ties that bind the UK to the rest of the EU, something that would have unclear economic consequences.
That gambit almost worked. Johnson got his deal approved by the House of Commons, which was as surprising as the renegotiated deal. However, his last-minute shenanigans caught up to him when Parliament refused to approve his timeline. With his deal dead in the water for now, Boris Johnson was then forced by Parliament to ask the EU for yet another extension to the negotiation timetable. Depending on if Johnson has more tricks up his sleeve, Brexit may or may not happen before the new January 31st deadline. For many Brexiteers, the bottom line is that more than three years after the British public voted to leave the EU they are still stuck in negotiation.
“We’ve seen in the past, that when people vote against further integration into the EU, that vote is ignored", said Richard Braine, the former leader of the ardently pro-Brexit UKIP party in an interview today. When I asked when he realized the Brexit process would become the prolonged stare-down it is today, he replied: “on the 24th of June 2016”, the day after the referendum. Like many of the protestors I spoke to outside Parliament, Braine was pessimistic about the Johnson government’s ability to handle Brexit but saw hope in the upcoming December 12 election as an opportunity for genuine change.
But if Braine was unsure about Johnson’s trustworthiness, he had even stronger words for Parliament and the EU. He accused Michel Barnier, the lead EU negotiator of bad faith and acting against the interests of the UK: “Barnier said that… the UK cannot have a competitive edge”. He believes that the EU is holding the UK hostage in negotiations in order to scare other euroskeptics away from their own independence votes. As for Parliament, Braine had this to say: “We have a Parliament that is dead-set against leaving”. In the end, Braine believed that what he called a real Brexit would be only possible with No-deal, whereby the UK could negotiate more favorable deals with other partners like the US as the world’s fifth largest economy.
None of the Remain supporters I spoke with seemed anymore optimistic about the situation. Although some parties still seek to reverse the decision of the referendum and remain in the EU, such as the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, there is an often unspoken belief among the political class that Brexit will have to happen one or another. Many Remainer politicians are concerned about the political implications of Brexit and many pro-Remain voters are worried about the economic impact Brexit might have. “I work on our plane engines and we can do so much business because we’re in the EU… a lot of that is going to go away when we leave”, said Paul Steele, a pro-EU voter from Derbyshire.
The question on Brexit is important because it is not just the story of the UK against the EU, or the Parliament against the people, or Boris Johnson against whomever. Brexit is one of the biggest and boldest examples of a country redefining its relations with an increasingly globalist and economically interdependent world. It was a populist rejection of the sort of trade bloc and regional union the EU represents, preceding the equally populist 2016 victory of Donald Trump. Whether or not these grievances justify taking the UK out of the EU, it represents a voice in the global dialogue that has been ignored long enough to create something as explosive and unexpected as Brexit. Even beyond the warm relations between Trump and Johnson, these populist movements confront the same issues of trade, economy and global governance. Now that the situation has crystallized in the UK and US after the shock of these two victories, the conversation on how a country relates to the greater global community is as relevant than ever. The economic concerns of the Remain supporters and the fears of lost-sovereignty of the Brexit supporters are both valid.
It would also be valid to ask if the UK can really leave a greater trading/political body like the EU in our interdependent world. Unfortunately, the answer to that question was no clearer on that sunny October day than it was three years ago.