The End of the Brexit Illusion

The grand promises of withdrawal from the European Union run aground on the tedious and technical details that campaigners ignored.

Toby Melville / Reuters

Two British cabinet ministers have resigned within the past 24 hours, an upheaval not seen since at least 1982, according to the BBC politics desk.

Both resigned for the same reason: to protest Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to preserve some of the benefits of EU membership for Britain in a post-Brexit world. That plan is not a very realistic or workable plan. But that’s not why the two ministers have resigned. They have resigned in protest that the plan is not fantastical enough, that it does not rely enough on fairy dust and magic wishes. Ominously, something like half the British Conservative party agrees with the departing ministers.

Since the June 2016 referendum on a British exit from the European Union, the winners have bumped into a sequence of practical problems to which they can offer no credible solutions. As time dribbles away, the British government has backed into ever-greater concessions to the European Union point of view—without coming any closer to a finished agreement by the deadline of March 29, 2019.

This past weekend, May convened a meeting at her country home, Chequers, to propose to her cabinet a draft basis for negotiations with the European Union. The plan proposed what has been known as “soft Brexit”: Britain would seek to exit the Union—and end the free movement of people from the EU into Britain—while effectively remaining within the EU Customs Union. It’s not at all certain that such an outcome could be reached. The document presumes great negotiating leverage on the British side, when at the moment Britain looks to need this deal much, much more than the EU does.

But as optimistic as the Chequers plan looks to outsiders, it seemed desperately unsatisfactory to pro-Brexit politicians. They envisioned a Britain free to negotiate free-trade agreements with fellow-English-speaking countries: the United States, Canada, and Australia. They had promised to claw back billions of pounds in payments to the European Union and redirect them to the U.K. health system. They insisted that British trade agreements should be enforceable only by British courts. The Chequers plan implicitly surrendered these high hopes.

And so, in protest, two ministers quit: first David Davis, the minister in charge of the negotiations, then the ferociously ambitious foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, determined as always to position himself as the most Euroskeptical politician in Britain.

Had Brexit lost, Johnson would today occupy a comfortable position in British politics. He would be the acknowledged leader of the die-hard Euroskeptic faction within the Conservative party. The wittiest man in politics, the best debater in the House of Commons, he would be free to scheme and plot without having to worry about the tedious, technical difficulties of trade negotiations.

Unfortunately for him, his side won the referendum—and his reputation has been in free-fall ever since. Only 50 percent of Conservative Party members regard Johnson as competent, by far the lowest ranking of any of the top five candidates to succeed May. (Among non-Conservatives, Johnson stands even lower. The New Statesman last year quoted a former British ambassador who called Johnson “the least deserving and least qualified foreign secretary of modern times, who has successfully lived down to all expectations.”) His resignation from the Cabinet is a last bid to regain the factional leadership he has botched.

While Johnson lacks interest in the dull details of policy, he is Britain’s leading expert in the dark arts of sabotaging potential rivals. He seems on the verge of doing it again. His resignation has up-ended the May government and could yet collapse it. But those ruthless tactics are not joined to much concern for political outcomes. The Conservative government is teetering even as Britain moves ever closer to being cast out of the EU without any deal at all, leaving unsettled such terrible problems as the Irish border—putting at risk the hard-won Irish peace of the 1990s.

Right now, people and goods cross between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic as easily as between Maryland and Virginia. (One video shows a single automobile crossing the border four times in 10 minutes of driving, all on the same road.)

If the Irish border remains open post-Brexit, any resident of the EU could fly to Dublin, take a bus to Belfast, and then fly to London—all without showing a passport.* That would make a mockery of the Brexit promise to restrain immigration.

But hardening the Irish border implies more than passport controls on the roads. Along many miles, the Irish border can easily be crossed on foot, with no higher barrier than a farmer’s fence, if that. To halt the movement of people, the border would have to be walled off, Trump-style. The fortification of the Irish border would call into question the arduously achieved peace settlement of the 1990s. Nobody in either the United Kingdom or the Irish Republic wants that. But nobody can quite imagine how to prevent it, either, post-Brexit.

And that is only one of the hard, technical questions still awaiting a workable answer, two years after the Brexit vote, and after decades of debate inside Britain about the EU. Will British banks be allowed to market EU country bonds? What happens to British retirees living in Spain, France, and Italy? What happens to EU passport-holders working in Britain? How can Britain negotiate its own trade treaties with the United States, as the Conservatives wish, while remaining inside the EU Customs Union?

Even seemingly super-simple questions prove surprisingly intractable in practice. Where, for example, will trucks park for inspection when crossing between France and a post-EU Britain? Under a 2003 agreement, the trucks all park on the French side of the channel. But the French increasingly resent the congestion created by the vast truck park—650 hectares wrapped in 40 kilometers of high-tech fencing. They hope to use the Brexit negotiations to muscle the British into accepting future truck parks within the already densely crowded landscape of southeastern England.

In 2016, pro-Brexit politicians assured British voters that a post-EU Britain would deploy sufficient bargaining power to impose its will on its European Union counterparties. That claim has proven an illusion. So, too, have the promises that the United Kingdom would realize billions of pounds in budget savings for its health service, or that a new trade treaty could be swiftly negotiated with the United States. (Negotiations on an U.S.-U.K. treaty have not even begun, and a U.S. that has launched a trade war upon Canada hardly looks a satisfactory replacement for an EU that currently takes 45 percent of all British exports and provides 55 percent of all British imports.)

It’s all around as grim a predicament as Britain has faced in recent memory—and yet simultaneously also one of the most tedious and technical, holding the interest neither of voters nor of politicians. They prefer to focus on the plots and schemes of Westminster, sacrificing the country’s security and prosperity to their own short attention spans.

*This story originally suggested asylum seekers could cross to Ireland to gain entry to the U.K. In fact, Ireland is not a signatory to the Schengen Treaty, and so they would not be able to do so.