Dark cloud of Brexit may have a silver lining
If UK Prime Minister Theresa May had deluded herself that her toughest Brexit negotiations would take place in Brussels, she is quickly waking up to a reality in which political skirmishes in the Palace of Westminster over leaving the European Union are equally fierce, if not more so. Divisions on almost every aspect of Brexit are surfacing daily, preoccupying the Conservative Party and causing major rifts within it, whilst the government must also deal with its profound disagreements with opposition parties on the issue.
It is 10 months before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, and neither the process for an orderly Brexit nor any of the substantive issues leading to the exit door have been agreed. Britain is as divided today as it was two years ago, when it voted by a tiny majority to walk out of the European project.
Differing opinions on an issue of such magnitude for the future of the country are only natural, but the illusion that Great Britain can cherry-pick what it would like to retain from its membership and what it would like to discard is a genuine worry. This approach, not surprisingly, is facing robust resistance from the other 27 members of the EU, as it undermines the very ideological and practical justification for the existence of the bloc as it is. This in turn complicates not only the negotiations with Brussels, but also the British government’s calculus of what its objectives should be regarding its future relations with the rest of the continent, how these can be achieved, and what it believes can eventually be supported by Parliament.
It is also the case that there is still a majority in both houses of Parliament — the Commons and the Lords — that supports remaining in the EU and is convinced that it can mitigate, if not avert Brexit altogether. Facing them are the hard-core Brexiteers, who are deeply suspicious of the government’s and the Remainers’ intentions, and who assert that they are submitting to the will of the majority as expressed in the referendum. As a matter of fact, they are not far from the truth. While there is a vociferous group of Brexiteers in Parliament who are hell-bent on leaving the EU regardless of whether there is a good deal, a bad deal or no deal at all, there are many more who would like no more than a nominal exit while maintaining most of the core aspects of membership. A sensible approach would aim to identify and concentrate on key areas that are of vital interest to the UK in an effort to at least minimize the hardships caused by Brexit. Already, there are warnings of rising food prices, loss of research funds and jobs that will move elsewhere in Europe.
For fear of embarrassing defeats, the government is avoiding tabling anything connected with Brexit before the House of Commons.
Moreover, any outcome of the negotiations should leave enough flexibility, given the right conditions, for the UK to seek closer relations with or even re-join the European Union. At present, the exact opposite is taking place, with destructive long-term consequences, driving a further wedge into British society and into the UK’s relations with the rest of Europe.
For fear of embarrassing defeats, the government is avoiding tabling anything connected with Brexit before the House of Commons. This is consequently slowing down the process and preventing a genuine debate within the sovereign body, which represents the British people. This avoidance has led the Labour Party to accuse the government of “effectively subverting democracy.” The government’s tiny majority in Parliament has resulted in too much power in the hands of a small group of MPs, especially from the prime minister’s party, who have the capacity to inflict defeat on the government on any issue, at any given time.
Last week was particularly uncomfortable for the government, as it suffered a series of such defeats in the House of Lords, ranging from a bill to retain the UK’s participation in a range of EU agencies to one that removed the March 29, 2019, deadline for Brexit, thus enabling the process to drag on almost indefinitely. Even more striking was an amendment to keep the UK in the European Economic Area, which for all intents and purposes equates to staying in the European single market — in other words, as soft an exit as is possible.
While amendments made in the House of Lords are not binding until approved by the House of Commons, the unelected upper house is attempting to set an agenda that is more Europe-friendly and to force the government and the elected chamber to address these issues with the seriousness and severity they deserve. With cross-benchers on both sides of the Lords’ despatch box ready to defy their leaders and put the good of the country ahead of party political calculations, we can expect to see more of these amendments debated and gain a majority vote.
One suggestion being whispered around Westminster as a result of these political divisions and the ensuing stalemate is of forming a centrist party comprised of those who have become disillusioned with the anti-European nationalists within the Conservative Party and the old-school left of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. These whispers are becoming louder and more frequent, and the whisperers may shortly become more explicit as Euroskeptics take hold in both parties and the anti-Semitism scandal engulfs the Labour Party.
The success of French President Emmanuel Macron and his La Republique En Marche party has triggered a substantial number of politicians and political commentators not only to think about the possibility of a major political realignment, but also to believe that such a third party could do well at the ballot box. One of the unlikely outcomes of the Brexit debacle might be the emergence of a much-needed political force that is Europhile, has a more global outlook, and has a progressive social consciousness — a rare silver lining within the dark cloud of Brexit.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. Twitter: @YMekelberg