The Britain That Was Fades Into Memory

Theresa May can’t keep her promises about the virtues of Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May holds a regional cabinet meeting.
Prime Minister Theresa May holds a regional cabinet meeting. (Stefan Rousseau / Reuters)

On Wednesday, the British government began the formal process of exiting the European Union. In a speech to the House of Commons in London, Prime Minister Theresa May said that invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was a “historic moment, from which there can be no turning back” and “a great turning point in our national story.”

For once, May was right. Brexit does indeed mark a momentous point of no return for Britain. But the truth is that she cannot possibly deliver on her 12-point list of priorities for Brexit, which includes building a fairer society, spreading economic opportunity, and facilitating “a smooth, orderly” transition out of the EU. With fresh demands for a second independence referendum in Scotland and a fracturing peace process in Northern Ireland to contend with, it’s far more likely that May’s first order of business will be crisis control.

By triggering Brexit, May’s government has unleashed months of uncertainty on the British people, pursuing a course of action that will leave them less secure, less prosperous, and lead to more division between the pro- and anti-Brexit camps. These divisions are not between the north and south, city and country, but are within families. The ugly reality has begun to sink in: Nationalism is driving the country to a very hard Brexit that no one chose.

In the months ahead, many Brits who voted to leave the EU following a two-year divorce will not feel they have “taken back their country.” And regions that voted to leave, such as Wales, will be the hardest hit by Brexit’s economic impact. May has laid out a new industrial strategy to boost the British economy, but most businesses remain cautious about Brexit’s potential for improving their economic prospects. The failure to secure a trade deal between Britain and European nations before leaving the EU would be a disaster, they say. Britain, quite simply, has a numbers problem: It is one medium-sized country negotiating against 27 member states. The EU also has an ample supply of trade negotiators that will dwarf anything Britain can muster.

While May’s government rebuilds its trade relationships with Europe, it will simultaneously be dismantling its 44-year legal relationship with the EU. Thousands of EU laws on the books in Britain will have to be revoked, and the U.K. will have to replace existing EU laws with a so-called Great Repeal Bill, which also gives sweeping powers to ministers to tweak these laws. This process will grind down the British civil service. Certainly, it will be among the most significant challenges British officials have ever faced, and it is unclear if May’s government has the skills to pull it off.

As Britain works to excise EU law from its constitution, those it is leaving behind seem disinclined to make life easy for May. Within hours of triggering Article 50, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected her chief demand to both agree on the terms of a divorce and hold a parallel negotiation of a future EU-U.K. relationship. Before the EU can discuss such a future, Merkel said, talks “must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship.” May, in turn, warned EU leaders, saying that a failure to reach a deal with Britain would weaken cooperation on security and law enforcement. This veiled threat sparked a series of acrimonious reactions from EU officials, who said that May was, in effect, “blackmailing” them.

May certainly seems to believe she is operating from a position of strength, declaring in January she would rather do “no deal” on trade with the EU than a “bad deal for Britain.” But EU member states have little reason to give much ground to her demands, or to fear for the union’s further dissolution. Since the Brexit referendum, anti-EU sentiment in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, has been largely contained, with the recent defeat of the Eurosceptic party of the pro-Brexit Geert Wilders suggesting that the eulogies for the union may have been premature. Moreover, in countries such Denmark, support for the EU has actually grown since June. In all likelihood, European nations will band together to force a bad deal on Britain in order to protect European unity and defend their core principles. Perhaps May got the message: In recent days she has backed off her threat to leave the EU without a deal, after the government realized this would wreak economic havoc.

May’s behavior is emblematic of the hubris of the pro-Brexit camp, who, before the referendum last June sold the British public a falsehood about a more prosperous, fair, and global Britain outside the EU, empowered to determine its own destiny on its own terms. This is a pipe dream; the reality is that whatever deal Britain gets will be determined by the EU.

Today, President of the European Council Donald Tusk made clear the EU’s draft negotiation position. “Once, and only once we have achieved sufficient progress on the withdrawal, can we discuss the framework for our future relationship. Starting parallel talks will not happen,” he said. This essentially rules out May’s key objective of negotiating a parallel trade deal as Britain settles the terms of its divorce from the EU. Tusk also made clear that the EU—not the U.K.—would decide when “sufficient progress” had been made, a stance echoed by French President Francois Hollande. EU leaders may well feel that Britain needs to be punished to dissuade other EU member states from leaving, as recent reporting has suggested. But today, Tusk said the EU would not punish the U.K. because Brexit is “punishment enough.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, May, curiously, talks of Brexit as if it will bring Britain closer to the global community. She has called for a “global Britain” that will be a fairer society. “I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country—a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead,” she said on Wednesday. But post-Brexit referendum, Britain has become less, not more, tolerant. Hate and religious crimes recorded by police in England and Wales rose 41 percent after Britain voted to quit the EU.

In May’s vision, “leaving the EU … is this generation’s chance to shape a brighter future for our country,” as she said in her speech on Wednesday. That generation, of course, largely rejected Brexit, with 75 percent of 18 to 24 year olds and 56 percent of 25 to 49 year olds voting to remain; the majority of the over-65s in Britain voted to leave.

So far, May has shown contempt for younger Brits like me who wished to stay a part of the EU. At last year’s Conservative Party Conference, May dismissed “those who still believe Britain has made a mistake in leaving the EU” as “just patronizing members of a liberal metropolitan elite.” This is not case: 16 million, or 48 percent, of all Brits voted to remain in the EU. Now that the country is headed for a hard Brexit, there’s no one to speak up for them, with the Labour Party falling apart and Britain’s liberal center in decline.

For me, a refugee who came to Britain as a child from Somalia escaping war and famine who has struggled to become British, the decision to leave the EU is a decision to reject a body of shared, European values. The Britain of multiculturalism, open to the world, is now in real danger, replaced by one keen to blame migrants, progressive politics, and diversity, for its ills. The country I wanted so much to belong to is a memory.