When the British people voted by a small margin to leave the EU, they must have had a range of reasons for it and an array of expectations. Chaos and utter incompetence were definitely not what the British electorate had in mind, but they are on the receiving end of both at the moment. The morning after the referendum last June revealed a political system in complete shock and disarray in the face of its results.
A nation woke up to an unexpected new reality of a prime minister who lost all credibility and resigned, and a government that had not bothered to lay any groundwork in preparation for this eventuality. The ugly power struggle that ensued elevated Theresa May — a Brexiteer at heart, who half-heartedly campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU — to the position of prime minister.
A brief glance at her selection of Cabinet ministers left no illusion from the very start of her premiership that she was not heading toward soft ejection from Europe, but a hard Brexit. When May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sometime between now and the end of the month, two years of intricate negotiations will start that will define future relations between the UK and EU as much as the political future of the British Isles themselves.
Europe and the British government may be interested in an amicable agreement, but their current posturing may end in no deal at all, which would not be beneficial to either side. The British government can flex its muscles as much as it likes, or as much as it takes to satisfy its anti-European voters and the right-wing media, but it cannot alter geopolitical and economic realities.
Trade with the EU is declining in proportion with the rest of the world, but 45 percent of the UK’s exports and more than half of its imports are to and from this enormous economic bloc. Close cooperation on a wide range of political and security issues remains extremely important, if not more so than ever.
Had May and her Cabinet colleagues wanted to pursue a more minimalist approach to exiting Europe, they could have relied on two very helpful sources: The unelected House of Lords and public opinion.
By making amendments to the Brexit Bill, the House of Lords offered a lifeline on two crucial fronts. It attempted to guarantee the legal status of the 3 million EU citizens working and living in the UK, who might find their stay in the country illegal by the end of the exit process.
This will go down as of one of the most shambolic political processes in British history. For the next two years, the political, economic and social energy of the country will be consumed by efforts to limit the damaging consequences inflicted by a careless decision.
This action by the House of Lords has a humanitarian and economic facet. Common sense dictates that regardless of the negotiations, the status of these EU citizens should be resolved with no delay. Using them as a bargaining chip in negotiations is deplorable and self-defeating. It appeases the anti-migration sentiment that dominated the Brexit campaign, but it harms any trust left between the UK and EU even before negotiations have begun.
Another lifeline thrown by the House of Lords was in the shape of another amendment to hand Parliament a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal. This too was rejected by the government’s majority in the House of Commons. It leaves a government stuffed with anti-European sentiment to call all the shots, in what may prove to be quite an ugly divorce.
One could at least expect that if the government refuses to listen to an unelected chamber, it would pay attention to public opinion, which expresses its wishes for a softer Brexit. There is no sign of recognition of this from May or the Cabinet.
The story of Brexit also carries with it the seeds of the potential breakup of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, immediately threw a spanner in the works after last week’s vote, calling for a fresh referendum on Scottish independence. She cited the will of the Scottish people to stay in the EU rather than the British union.
Sinn Fein’s phenomenal success in the Northern Ireland elections — a party whose main raison d’être is uniting the two parts of Ireland and ending the union with Britain — can also be attributed to Brexit. The fear of ending free movement between the two parts of Ireland drew support for the Northern Irish republicans from unexpected quarters.
The Brexit mess the UK is in will no doubt go down as of one of the most shambolic political processes in the country’s history. For the next two years, the political, economic and social energy of the country will be consumed by efforts to limit the damaging consequences inflicted by a careless decision.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.