About one year into the Brexit negotiations, the procedure for leaving the European Union assumes slowly but steadily the characteristics of a horror story.
This month literati and horror fans alike are celebrating 200 years of a classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Conceived on a stormy night in a Genevan villa and ranging widely across the landscapes of Europe, Shelley’s tale of a monster created by a hubristic scientist has entered into the public consciousness like few others. During this anniversary, some may find it hard not to draw comparisons with the UK wrestling another monster of its own making: Brexit.
The comparison is actually rather appropriate. Successive British politicians have played the role of the hapless Victor Frankenstein, locked into crises of their own creation. The horror story began in January 2013 when former prime minister David Cameron announced that, if his Conservative Party won the next general election, he would call a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. That was a promise made with the spectre of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party looming on the horizon, in full expectation that the Conservatives would fail to win a majority and be forced to drop the referendum pledge in coalition negotiations with more moderate parties. In fact, the 2015 election delivered a single-party government and Cameron was obliged to follow through on his promise. Following a failed attempt to ‘renegotiate’ Britain’s terms of membership with its EU partners, the referendum was set for June 2016.
Even then, such was the complacency of the British political class that they believed the Leave campaign could only lose. Now they are faced with delivering on the impossibility of a Brexit deal that corresponds to what the UK electorate was expecting when it opted, albeit very marginally, to leave. That task has only been made harder by the most hubristic move yet. Seeking to exploit her poll lead Cameron’s successor as prime minister, Theresa May, called an early election and expressed her desire to crush parliamentary opposition to her Brexit plans. Sceptical voters promptly removed her governing majority, and since June she has been negotiating with Brussels in one direction while fending off a leadership coup on the other.
The issue of European integration has had a particular tendency to destroy Conservative prime ministers, but the truth is that no politician or party in Britain is now free of this Frankenstein’s monster. On the one hand, the British people were asked their view on EU membership and – no matter the inadequacies of the democratic process – resolved that they wanted out. On the other, Brexit is impossible to deliver on the terms it was sold by the Leave side during the referendum campaign. The choice is between defying the ‘will of the people’ and knowingly enacting one of the worst blunders in British political history.
So, with just over a year to go until Brexit Day, where are we now?
At the end of last year, the decision by the EU27 to progress the Brexit negotiations to their second phase was lauded by Eurosceptics as a victory over the machinations of Brussels. In fact, it was a combination of capitulation by the UK government on some issues and a fudge by both sides on others. Foreign affairs minister Boris Johnson had previously denied that Britain would pay anything into the EU budget to cover its outstanding financial obligations, but it has now agreed to pay up to €50 billion (equivalent to the state’s entire agriculture budget for the next 15 years. Leave campaigners made a lot of the opportunity for the country to regain sovereignty outside the framework of supranational law, yet it now seems the European Court of Justice will retain some jurisdiction in Britain to protect the rights of EU citizens still living there. These are hardly the unilateral concessions we were told would come flowing from Brussels once David Davis went head to head with Michel Barnier.
However, it is in the fate of a small UK province that the true folly of the negotiations can be glimpsed. Northern Ireland represents the country’s only land border with the EU and so, under a ‘hard’ Brexit scenario, would become the EU’s north-west frontier. The situation is complicated by a raw legacy of civil war between Protestant unionists, committed to the Great British mainland, and Catholic separatists, seeking the province’s accession to the Irish Republic to the south. The peace agreement brokered between the warring parties in the 1990s relies on seamless free movement both within the island of Ireland and between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. If the UK intends to break away from both the EU and the wider European Economic Area (EEA) then Brexit puts that agreement at risk; the new border will have to go somewhere and upset someone. As it this wasn’t messy enough, May’s electoral failure last year led her into a pact with the partisan and Eurosceptic Democratic Unionist Party in order to prop up her parliamentary majority. If the prime minister wavers in her commitment to the province she is liable to lose both her ability to pass legislation and her job.
Resolving the status of Northern Ireland was the last obstacle to completing phase one of the Brexit negotiations, with the Irish Republic ready to use its member-state veto until a deal was reached. In the lead-up to December’s European Council meeting May apparently managed to convince both EU negotiators and the Irish government that the problem would be solved in due course, and that talks could safely progress to other matters. Nevertheless, the Northern Irish question will not go away because it is just one iteration of a more fundamental question: what is the UK willing to sacrifice to achieve nominal independence from the rest of Europe?
The great lie of the Leave side during the referendum campaign was that Brits would be able to maintain all the benefits of EU membership while foregoing all of the obligations. Unobstructed access to the single market, participation in cross-border research and innovation programmes, visa-free holidays in the sun - all would be theirs to have, without having to worry about controversial encumbrances like budget contributions or the supposed damage caused by net inward migration from mainland Europe. Any attempt by the Remain side to challenge this rosy prospectus was met with accusations of ‘talking Britain down’ or failing to believe in the potential of a great nation. Now that the country has opted for Brexit, at some point this fantasy will have to come crashing into reality. The UK cannot simply have everything it wants, and the government must decide which benefits of membership it wishes to maintain and how it intends to pay for these.
In fact, with all the other problems currently faced by mainland Europe, Brexit has had a uniquely unifying effect on the EU27. Both Member States and the central institutions have been remarkably consistent in their stance since June 2016, maintaining the principle that there must be a clear distinction between being in and out of the ‘club’. The UK may be a significant economic and security partner, but this is no reason to jeopardise the integrity and continuity of the EU area by caving in to its special pleading. Financial services is a good example of this. The City of London is Europe’s financial sector and perhaps Britain’s strongest bargaining chip in the negotiations, but strengthening Frankfurt and Paris in competition would be preferable to the risk of contagion from a deregulated market on the EU fringe. If necessary, the far larger EU economy is capable of doing without the UK, while the converse is much less certain.
Unclear what the UK government hopes to achieve as an outcome
By contrast, a year and a half after the Brexit referendum it remains unclear what the UK government hopes to achieve as an outcome. In her most conciliatory overture to date, a speech given in Florence after a bruising summer, May claimed that both negotiating parties could do ‘so much better’ than either EEA membership or a deal similar to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement recently brokered between the EU and Canada. Suggestions on what this might actually look like were few on the ground. May has successfully pushed the negotiations into their second phase, but we lack any clear sense of what is being aimed for across a wide range of policy areas. Having caused this uncertainty the onus is on Britain, not on the EU27, to make a realistic proposal for a future relationship. And 29 March 2019 – the day on which, without a deal, the UK will crash out of the EU to fend for itself – is really not that far away.
The one thing that can be said for Britain throughout this process has been its persistent commitment to the European security system, most significantly deploying troops in the Baltics to ward off Russia’s designs on the former USSR. Against the apparent desire to withdraw from as many European institutions and programmes as possible, there is currently no question of a Brexit from NATO. On the other hand, the UK has shown willingness to do business with radical Right-wing governments in Poland and the USA, apparently unconcerned about their volatile treatment of the international order that has existed since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, it remains unclear how Britain will react to further security integration in mainland Europe, initially through new plans for Permanent Structured Cooperation and, potentially, for a single EU defence force. Continental security remains the least controversial area of the Brexit negotiations, but only time will tell if it meets the same nationalistic fate as other items on the agenda.
Many of us want to know what 2018 has in store for the Brexit process. The truth is that, until the UK government pulls itself together and comes to the negotiating table with some serious proposals, very little will change. A cabinet dominated by pro-Brexit ideologues is still living out a fanciful dream of a resurgent nation taking everything it wants from Europe while pursuing its neo-imperialist destiny elsewhere in the world. Though many in both Britain and the EU27 may wish otherwise, this dream could conceivably survive until March next year before being punctured.
Beyond just a thrilling horror story, Frankenstein is often read as critiquing the belief that human nature and human society are perfectible by human hands. It is ironic that conservatives, those who are meant to be inherently sceptical of such grand utopian projects, have been the ones to foist Brexit on their country out a deluded sense of national importance. Sooner or later they will be forced to awake, bleary-eyed, to some nightmarish facts - chief among them that there is really no better deal for Britain than the one it already has.