Hard Brexit crashes and burns — what is the alternative?
Over the last 12 months, Britain appeared stubbornly locked on a trajectory of not just leaving the EU, but sabotaging its role in the world and gutting its own economy. The narrowest of victories in last year’s EU membership referendum was interpreted as a mandate for the most extreme vision of Brexit, driven by the xenophobic right-wing of Britain’s Conservative Party.
Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election, complacent that she could massively enhance her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from Europe. As the UK now contemplates the implications of a hung Parliament with no clear winner, where did it all go wrong?
May waged a disastrous and unimaginative campaign against the socialist campaigning veteran Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoyed the advantage of low expectations. It could be said they both lost; Corbyn’s Labour Party came in behind the Conservatives, but May gratuitously squandered her comfortable parliamentary majority, leaving her in a position of extreme vulnerability within her own party, inside Parliament and vis-a-vis EU negotiators. Many of her own colleagues will continue to argue that her credibility has been fatally compromised and she should know when to quit.
May’s agenda had been driven by the worst instincts of Britain’s populist right-wing media, which brutally savaged high court judges, politicians, activists and anybody who tried to stand in the path of the hardest of all possible EU exits. This week’s result gives confidence to all those who are alarmed by the dangerous domestic and international consequences of Britain slamming its doors in Europe’s face.
Pro-EU constituencies such as students, minorities and Londoners voted in unprecedentedly large numbers. Young people apparently learned from their failure to vote in sufficient numbers in the Brexit referendum that when they complacently fail to vote, they cannot complain about the outcome. As well as ending some long political careers, these elections brought the number of women in Parliament to more than 200 — a historic result.
One pundit described Britain as “stumbling” its way to the negotiating table when Brexit talks start next week. It is difficult to envisage how these talks can bear fruit when Britain’s position on Brexit has just spectacularly imploded — an entirely self-inflicted wound.
The consequence will be an anarchic period for British politics, possibly lasting until this weakened minority government hits impassable roadblocks and is forced to call new elections. Little wonder that the British electorate across the political spectrum carps at being trapped in a cycle of endless wrangling over the same issues.
Even before these elections, experts believed it was virtually impossible to reach a highly complex deal on EU departure within the mandatory two-year window. The overwhelming message from this messy outcome is that May does not have a mandate for a hard Brexit.
There is now an opportunity for cooler heads to argue for a revised partnership with Europe, allowing Britain to retain the open borders that underpin its globalized economy while offering more flexible membership conditions.
With many Conservatives arguing for maintaining ties with Europe, the dogged pursuit of a hard Brexit risks provoking a rebellion and fresh elections. But this requires a humiliating U-turn from May, raising questions as to whether she is the right person for the job.
Why does this all matter? The anti-EU instincts of the government and its tabloid cheerleaders follow on US President Donald Trump’s coattails in an isolationist and xenophobic direction. This threatens to decrease Britain’s role in the world and weaken its position as a global financial hub.
The Conservatives were also damaged by recent terrorist attacks on UK soil, coinciding with news of massive budget cuts to the police services. This is a reminder that Britain must not undermine its close intelligence-sharing relationship with Europe.
British and American leaderships share the belief that they can slash spending in diplomacy and foreign aid without consequences. This prevents Western nations having a role in conflict prevention, poverty eradication or addressing grievances that fuel radicalization.
Leaders must not lie to their electorates that they can provide security by walling themselves off from the outside world. But with Boris Johnson apparently returning as foreign secretary, foreign policy looks set to be more of the same.
The election result triggered a sharp fall in the pound’s value. It was the worst possible scenario for British businesses, presaging a prolonged period of uncertainty, when investors were already spooked by the prospect of Britain severing its ties with Europe.
But there is now an opportunity for cooler heads to argue for a revised partnership with Europe, allowing Britain to retain the open borders that underpin its globalized economy while offering more flexible membership conditions.
Minority governments struggle to keep their heads above water even in a benign political environment. It is almost inconceivable that May can force the succession of complex bills through a divided Parliament required to introduce a future Brexit deal into UK law, not least because of opposition within her own party.
The only possible approach may be achieving cross-party consensus around a gentler vision for Brexit. This can only be a good thing when the alternative is a single faction railroading a self-harming deal through Parliament with little democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate.
These elections are a victory for nobody, but as the vision for a hard Brexit crashes and burns, the result offers hope that a more globalized, inclusive and progressive vision for Britain and its place in the world can emerge from one of the strangest election contests in living memory.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.