Even Now, Brexit Remains Impossible to Understand

International correspondents have the particularly challenging task of reporting on Brexit’s significance for readers who don’t follow its every twist and turn.

Theresa May addresses reporters.
Amidst the daily drama of Brexit, foreign correspondents struggle to explain the story to an international audience. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

LONDON—“There is a complete meltdown going on here,” Stephen Castle, a U.K. correspondent for The New York Times and a veteran journalist who has been based in Brussels and London for more than a quarter century, told me during another hectic week in Brexit Britain. “It’s a very slow-motion and incremental one, and that makes it harder to bring to light.”

For even the most seasoned analysts and reporters, Brexit has proved to be a political labyrinth. It’s a tumultuous moment for Britain—perhaps the most tumultuous to befall the country since World War II. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is rife with extreme political and economic consequences. And yet, nearly three years of complications, crunch weeks, and crises later, Brexit remains seemingly impossible to understand. For the journalists tasked with covering this story, decoding and untangling Brexit has been particularly challenging. Keeping it comprehensible for audiences, both within the United Kingdom and around the world, has proved even harder.

In many ways, Brexit has the makings of a perfect story. There is intrigue, high drama, and an ever-changing cast of characters. But it also has other aspects that are far more difficult to convey: things such as “three-line whips,” amendments to amendments, and British parliamentary procedural rules dating as far back as the 17th century. For the reporters who cover this story, making sense of it all can seem like an insurmountable struggle. Several London-based journalists who report for both foreign and domestic audiences told me that it can feel like a never-ending one, too. Their challenge has wider implications: If journalists cannot fully explain the implications of a seminal moment in British society, how then can Britain’s populace fully grasp it? Perhaps unsurprisingly, across the country there remains a fundamental discrepancy in public understanding over what Brexit means, how it should look, and when it ought to happen.

Sonia Delesalle-Stolper, a London-based reporter for the French daily newspaper Libération, isn’t a Brexit correspondent (she has reported on the U.K. and Ireland for French media for more than two decades), though she admits that the past few years have practically made her one. “Brexit has taken over everything because it’s a historical story,” she told me at the Tate Britain, where she had just finished an interview for one of the several Brexit stories she typically files each week. “It is something that is going to have an impact on Britain, on Europe, and on the world.”

The enormity of Brexit can be difficult for international audiences to grasp, especially when the process of Britain’s departure from the EU seems to move so slowly—if at all. “They say, ‘Hasn’t it happened yet?’” Delesalle-Stolper said of her readers, noting that while the majority of French people originally opposed Brexit, many have since come to accept it, saying, in effect, Just let them go; we need to get on with something else.

But letting go isn’t so simple. British lawmakers are still fighting among themselves over the negotiated deal Prime Minister Theresa May agreed on with the bloc late last year, arguing about whether they will support it or seek alternative plans, including a no-deal exit, a second referendum, or no Brexit at all. Much of the opposition to May’s plan hinges on its reliance on the so-called Irish backstop, a stopgap measure to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. With it, some Brexiteers fear the U.K. could risk being tied to EU rules and regulations indefinitely. Without it, the EU says there won’t be a deal at all.

Summarizing the infighting within May’s government without getting into the weeds isn’t an easy task. When I asked Castle about the most challenging aspects of covering Brexit, especially for an international audience, he noted the jargon-filled language that surrounds it. Terms such as max fac, indicative votes, and MV3 (or the third “meaningful vote” on May’s Brexit deal) have forced their way into the British vernacular. On the day we spoke, Castle said he had recently learned a new one. “I just got my head around the ZOPA, which is the zone of possible agreement,” he said. “The one today we had in the briefing was WAB … which I’m assuming is the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.”

The best Brexit stories, however, rarely incorporate this kind of jargon. Nearly all the journalists I spoke with said that their reporting about the consequences of Brexit, rather than the nitty-gritty of the process itself, tends to garner the greatest audience response. “One of the first pieces I did was on insulin and the fact that there might be issues with people being able to get the supply that they need,” Bianca Nobilo, a correspondent and anchor for CNN, told me. Others noted their coverage of the “Brexit preppers” stockpiling food and medicine and the potential impact Britain’s withdrawal could have on the Northern Ireland peace process.

The challenge of making Brexit comprehensible isn’t limited to journalists reporting for audiences abroad. James Rothwell, the Brexit correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, told me that he deals with it every day. The only difference, he said, is that what he writes about stands to affect his readership directly. “While it’s difficult to keep the technical details interesting, the fact remains that we’re days away from leaving the world’s single largest trading bloc with no plan,” he said. “So the stakes are pretty damn high and there is that inherent sense of drama and danger and risk to the whole thing.”

That Britain should find itself in this perilous position just days before its anticipated departure from the EU is astounding. For many outsiders looking in, Brexit has defied their long-held perceptions of Britain and its global influence. “One of the things they thought they knew about Britain—which is [that it is] quite calm, quite pragmatic, quite phlegmatic—doesn’t actually appear to be the case,” Castle said. “I think that lies behind quite a lot of the interest in some of the stories that we write. Are they really doing this? Are they really risking a no-deal Brexit? Is Britain, a very sophisticated country, really willing to have lines of trucks sitting in ports?

For European readers, the reaction is mixed between shock and incredulity. “Friends at home [in Germany] tell me, ‘It’s not going to happen, is it?’” Katrin Pribyl, a U.K. and Ireland correspondent for German and Austrian newspapers, told me, noting that some Europeans still haven’t come to terms with Britain’s vote to leave the EU. “They regret the decision of the Brits very, very much.”

When I asked Delasalle-Stolper, the Libération correspondent, what made this story different than the others she has covered, she said that unlike other issues, Brexit is fundamentally personal. As an EU national, she is among the millions of people who need to apply for a new immigration status to continue living and working in the U.K. after it leaves the bloc. “It makes it quite acute and sometimes difficult to cover with enough distance because it will have an impact on my future; [it is] the way I decide if I stay in this country or not,” she said. “It is very unusual for a story, as a foreign journalist, to … feel that it has a huge impact on your personal life.”

When I asked these journalists whether they or their audience are suffering from Brexit fatigue, the overwhelming response was “yes”: Reporters and readers alike are tired of keeping up with the many ways that Brexit has (and hasn’t) changed, when it will (or won’t) happen, and how it stands to fundamentally change people’s lives, both within and beyond Europe.

“People’s livelihoods are at stake, their ability to access medicines are at stake, the future of their families and where they can live is at stake,” Nobilo, the CNN anchor, said. “If I remind myself how it affects people, the fatigue goes away.”