Rue Britannia? Brexit and the Battles for Britain
It may still be exhilarating for many in the United Kingdom to hear the chorus to “Land of Hope and Glory”:
Land of hope and glory, Mother of the free, How shall we extol thee, Who are born of thee
Wider still and wider, Shall thy bounds be set, God who made thee mighty, Make thee mightier yet
Yet a few days in London finds that the country is conflicted and confused about whether the bounds of the Land, not being made by God but by Brexit, are making the country wider and mightier, or narrower and weaker.
The Brexit battle is as much about domestic political brawls as it is about the negotiations with Brussels. Last week Prime Minister Theresa May stumbled through an interview over her pre and post Brexit referendum behavior, refusing to say how she would vote in a potential second referendum on the European Union and calling it hypothetical. Her foreign minister Boris Johnson undermined her by presenting his own case for dealing with Brexit, appearing publicly to undermine May’s position by accusing of her of being too soft in dealing with Brussels. And Labour leader Jeremy Corbin is attacking from the left, accusing the Tories of being split over negotiations and headed toward failure.
The overall mood is one of an ugly divorce process now in a phase where neither side is interested in negotiating at all. Accusations of stonewalling are being thrown across the Channel in both directions. Talk of a hard or soft Brexit is just that—talk.
And yet that the path to a final divorce seems certain—whether it is in the two years ahead as formally set, or whether it takes much longer. Either way, the implications for the UK are becoming increasingly troublesome both to those who favored the decision and to those who fought it.
The discussions I had in London were about the potential impact of the economic repercussions of Brexit as well as the political fallout. The idea that Britain will become a Singapore-like hub of economic dynamism in a global arena is more a hope than a real working hypothesis. The complications of leaving the EU resemble a multi-level chess game—one that has never been played before.
After forty-three years of membership, untangling the web of economic ties, legal jurisdictions, and political responsibilities is an enormous task. And not many Brits really grasp the magnitude. There are hundreds of agreements about thousands of issues. And getting a Brexit deal done is further complicated by the need for approval of the national and regional parliaments across the European Union. There are also serious implications for relationships with Ireland, which would be faced with a new border with Northern Ireland, and with Scotland, where the Brexit vote was less popular than in England and that may renew its bid for independence.
Considering the fact that public opinion polls show the country now unclear about the benefits and drawbacks of last year’s decision, there remains a reluctance by political leaders to call the referendum into question with another vote for fear of appearing to undermine the democratic process. But all those I asked about a reversal option seemed to rule it out.
In many circles on the continent, one hears that the Brexit initiative has helped congeal the European Union, in effect acting as a catalyst for those supporting a stronger EU as it reminds people of the value of a strong Europe. That may be true, but there are also signs of centrifugal forces similar to those in the UK that caused the Brexit vote. One need only think of the results of the recent Austrian elections or the conflicts between the EU and Poland or Hungary over immigration policies—among other flash points. There is a clear recognition that a nationalist wave is spreading across Europe’s political atmosphere. Struggling with how much diversity Europe needs and how much unity Europeans want is a continuing challenge whether it be defined in political, economic, or cultural terms.
But Brexit is now the main stage for the greatest test of how that equation might evolve. Europe’s future is at stake.
The debate in Britain is about the issues of sovereignty—particularly on immigration, but also on judicial oversight and the economic benefits of being in the EU single market, among other matters. It is also about the role of the UK on the global stage. With many taking the position that the UK would strengthen its influence by being unrestrained in its dealings with the world without the EU, others argue that every EU member country is stronger because of their combined strength within the EU. That is both a fact—as any country or corporation dealing with Brussels on economic and regulatory policies can attest to—and an aspiration as the effort to craft a common European foreign and security policy is a work in progress. But given the diffusion of power and influence on the global stage, combining and pooling resources has been and is a sound strategy for a Europe wishing to help shape the environment in which it operates.
“Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set” was the song of a country that was once a world power where the sun never set on its bounds and Britannia ruled the waves. That is no longer the same UK today.
But the bounds have been made wider in another sense within the European Union. That has required some compromises, some adjustments, and a good deal of argument along the way. It also required a vision that the sum of Europe could be more than its parts.
For now, there is a counter vision being pursued in the U.K. There is a feeling in half the country that the past forty-three years have not made the country “mightier yet.” The counter vision might seem to resemble the same motivation behind the vision currently being framed in the White House in Washington known as “Make America Great Again.”
What I do not find convincing in Washington—and its echoes in London—is the emphasis on the word “again.” The formula for going “back to the future” works in a movie plot, but that option doesn’t exist in world politics today. The longing for a recharged national sovereignty is driven by the uncertainties in the global arena. Those leaders who choose that path may see themselves being empowered to deal with the world’s challenges by allegedly regaining control of their fate.
Yet they will ultimately find more limits than opportunities. The power of a bond among nations lies in both the force of its ideas as well as its ability to jointly sustain and protect them. That has been the story of the EU, with all its shortcomings as well as its accomplishments. It is also the story of American alliances around the world, again with all its shortcomings and accomplishments.
The UK will be an illustration of how this debate between alternative visions plays out in the coming years. Whether met with regret or reassurance, the process has begun and evidently it cannot be reversed.