Brexit chaos has gone beyond a joke
If Brexit is some sort of practical joke, and someone behind a hidden camera is having a good laugh — please stop it. It was not funny to begin with, just a bad joke played on the British people and the entire European idea. We have now reached the stage where it is almost impossible to discern fact from fiction, policy from wishful thinking, and right from wrong. Arguments aim to please those who make them and satisfy the lowest common denominator, not the nation. To make things worse, not only has the renowned British sense of humor been lost in the process, but so has Britain’s civility of debate, which used to be an example for the rest of the world. Leading these appalling trends is the British government and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is clearly not only someone who has a special relationship with the truth and a preference for emotive and inciteful language, but is also not a very gifted politician.
In less than three months in office, he has made mistakes at every turn, leaving him a lame duck before his prime ministerial seat was even warm. Promising from the outset to activate Brexit on Oct. 31, even if a deal is not agreed, was no more than an empty threat — he knew it, his interlocutors in Brussels knew it, and so did all MPs who oppose leaving the EU without an agreement. This was followed by the dictatorial madness of proroguing Parliament in a blunt effort to prevent the elected legislative body from having the final say on one of the most important decisions in the country’s history. As if that wasn’t enough, Johnson’s move in expelling 21 of his own MPs, some of them long-time stalwarts, for not toeing the party line, and at a time when the party has no majority in the House of Commons, was an act of political suicide and further damaged the chances of getting an improved withdrawal agreement with the EU.
If Johnson’s ploys and plots have been completely detached from the current political realities, the Supreme Court recently handed him a much-needed reality check, ruling that it was impossible for the judges to conclude there had been any reason — “let alone a good reason” — to advise Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament for five weeks. Accordingly, MPs, who during the conference season usually avoid the Houses of Parliament, rushed back to reclaim democracy and restore some common sense.
That short lull in Parliament’s debates over Brexit did nothing to cool tempers and, once back in session, it was the prime minister who fanned the flames again and enraged those who disagree with his “do or die” Brexit plans. It is hard to tell with hardcore populists such as Johnson whether they understand that words can lead to political violence and the targeting of individuals — as was the case with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox on the eve of the Brexit referendum in 2016 — or whether they just couldn’t care less as long as their incitements serve their political objectives.
It is hard to tell with hardcore populists such as Johnson whether they understand that words can lead to political violence
Johnson sank as low as to describe as “humbug” a request by MP Paula Sherriff, in the light of the murder of Cox, to stop his inflammatory language. In his impudence, he argued that the best way to honor Cox’s memory was to “get Brexit done.” Since the slain MP was a remain supporter who was killed by a psychopath with connections to neo-Nazi groups, in this context the Brexit process is more of a caving-in to extreme right-wing violence than any sign of respect for her memory. It is a short step from using words such as “surrender,” “traitor” and “betrayal” against their opponents — as the prime minister and some of his close associates are doing — to the point where someone, somewhere is physically harmed. How long before Johnson and his supporters begin to accuse those who disagree with them of committing a “stab in the back?”
When the British government recently presented its new proposal, apparently addressing the main stumbling block of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, it proved to be too vague to convince its European counterparts, and especially the Irish government, that it would not mean bringing back a hard border. There is a consensus that a hard border would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and threaten the peace across the island of Ireland. Furthermore, Johnson’s proposal requires a functioning administration in the North, but Stormont’s power-sharing governing body has been in deep freeze for nearly three years, with no sign of its future reactivation. Admittedly, in this proposal there is a departure from the deal reached with Theresa May’s government when it comes to treating the entire Irish island as a single market. However, the suggestion that Northern Ireland should leave the EU customs union along with the rest of the UK is unpalatable for Brussels and especially for Dublin. They smell a rat and won’t fall for it.
And here we are with only a few days remaining until Oct. 19, when, in line with the so-called Benn Act, Prime Minister Johnson will have to ask for an extension of Article 50 until January 2020. In public, Johnson and his ministers maintain that, deal or no deal, the UK will leave by the current deadline of Oct. 31, but government lawyers have now pledged to a Scottish court that Johnson will obey the law and request an extension. There have been suggestions that the prime minister should not only be sacked if he violates the law, but should also go to jail if he attempts to leave without an agreement.
Just imagine the perfectly British farce of a prime minister arrested for not requesting an extension of Article 50. But no comedy scriptwriter could have imagined it, and it is doubtful whether even the staunchest remainer, let alone any leave supporter, would see the funny side of it. It is more likely that the entire country would weep for what Brexit has done to it.
- 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. Twitter: @YMekelberg