Brexit in endless stasis

Anti-Brexit protesters at Downing St. Photo:AP

On the night of the stunning Brexit vote in 2016 I was talking to an English friend who could not believe the outcome. I told him not to worry, I reckoned there and then it would never happen. It’s not that I thought Britain would go to the polls a second time to reverse the vote – I believed it more likely Britain would never admit to the mistake. All I saw was interminable period where, like the testy relationship between the two Chinas, it would remain forever stalemated with no satisfactory conclusion.

Nothing that has happening in the near three years since the people’s shock vote of 52-48 for Britain to leave the European Union, has caused me to change my mind. Neither the UK nor the EU can agree terms on the divorce. It’s in Europe’s interest for Britain to stay, so it can play hard. The bluff is that Europe would come out of a no-deal Brexit with a “very bloody nose” (to use a British expression) but would be far less worse off than Britain which would bleed from head to toe.

That bleeding could be more actual than metaphorical in Northern Ireland, Britain’s only land border which was barely discussed in the 2016 vote. Now the Irish backstop is at the heart of all trade discussion in Brussels. And it is more existential than just trade.

The extremists on both sides in Northern Ireland are already ratcheting up the tension with journalist Lyra McKee a sad casualty this week. A no-deal Brexit is the instinctive default position of “no surrender” hardline Unionists while it may also be the best recruiting tool yet for the nonsensical but dangerous minds that inhabit splinter groups like the New IRA and Continuity IRA (the latter so-called because it claims continuity with rebels who never accepted British rule or the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ratified separation of the island).

History lessons die hard on both sides but the vast majority of residents – Catholic, Protestant and otherwise – know their lives have been improved immeasurably since the artificial six country boundary was removed. In the 2016 referendum Northern Ireland voted 56-44 to remain – Belfast was one thing, Brussels was something else again.

But Dublin is a bridge too far for the DUP,  who Theresa May relies on for power. Britain could have left the EU by now if it had agreed to keep the Irish border open. But the DUP could not tolerate any difference from Scotland and Wales (ignoring the fact they share an island with another country). The DUP will hobble any attempt to wean Westminster off this crisis. The likelihood is they could be just as important in the next general election given another hung parliament and the inability of the major parties to turn it into a proper EU referendum (they had a chance in the 2017 election and failed).

Britain, meanwhile, is tearing itself apart. Apart from at election time, politics is no longer Labor versus Tory but remainer versus brexiteer, as if Alexander Dumas had stormed Westminster. The fundamental belief of the 48 percent that voted remain in 2016 is that leaving the EU is madness, and they feel robbed as some of the 52 percent were duped by false advertising by the leave vote.

The 52 percent (17.4 million compared to the leave’s 16.1 million) had many different different reasons for leaving. It is not clear a sufficient number of them have changed their mind since 2016 to enable a different result today. The UKIP is on the rise again as their followers fear the Tories will sell them down the river. Libertarian purists insist the will of the people be carried out, though are less clear on what Brexit Britain would actually look like.

For many the referendum vote was not about what was, but what could be. The fear of immigration was real, the poll was almost a year to the day of the Tunisian terrorist attacks at Sousse beach in June 2015 where terrorists killed 38 people, most of them British (30), an attack that hit hard. Churchill was prepared to fight them on the beaches, but British tourists prefer to lie on them, and feel threatened by Muslims from Cairo to Calais – and across the channel.

The British Muslim population is around 2.5 million now (4.4 percent of the whole). Between 2001 and 2009 the Muslim population increased almost 10 times faster than the non-Muslim population. Some worry Britain could become Islamic, albeit at some distant time – even by 2050 it will be 13 million, still less than a quarter of the population. But by 2050 many of those who voted for Brexit will be dead – 62% of men over 65 and 66% of women over 65 voted leave.

In any case planning to 2050 seems silly when parliament is utterly unwilling to give any option a try. Every “meaningful vote” has been struck down. Even the Theresa May option without Theresa May won’t get past the Unionists. But they still won’t give her a vote of no confidence. Britain is stuck in a Kafaesque mess of its leaders’ making hanging by the thread of the ever-changing date of the latest deadline (now October 31).

They don’t even control the deadline. EU president Donald Tusk wants to give Britain 12 months but French president Emmanuel Macron wants it to end soon, deal or no deal. Macron has a point, the European elections next month will include Britain – a lot of money on a wasted election if Britain does leave. The compromise of six months possibly turns the euro elections into a de facto Brexit second referendum. But for that to have legitimacy would require an enormous change of behaviour on British electors’ part to treat it seriously – one in three British voters vote in the European elections (35.6 percent in 2014).

Neither of the two major parties has a coherent position on Brexit, reflecting the schism of the nation. Part of me thinks Britain should respect the 2016 vote and leave. The Irish part of me vindictively thinks they may need the cold, hard reality of economic shock in order to repent at leisure and reapply. But that same part also worries about the collateral and calamitous damage to Ireland in a no-deal Brexit. This is not just about the economy but about peace itself. The only way to avoid the sword of Damocles is to pretend it doesn’t exist. The British public may be reacting to this faster than the politicians with latest economic data showing heavy consumer spending in March. A stalemate? Okay, keep calm and carry on.

Such optimism cannot be sustained long term. According to a new report by S&P Global Ratings, Brexit has already cost the British economy £66bn in just under three years – about £1000 lost for every per person and UK has missed out on £550m of economic growth per week. The Brexiteers have brandished their swords but have no coherent arguments where they are going to staunch the presumably greater losses if they actually leave. But neither they cannot bring themselves to accept Britain is a “vassal state” (like all other 27 members). Like the Chinas it’s all about not losing face. So it’s easier to do nothing.