Two National Emergencies, an Ocean Apart

Two of the world’s oldest democracies are reeling from political crises: the month-long government shutdown in the U.S. and the chaos surrounding Brexit in the U.K.

Donald Trump and Theresa May meet at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, in July 2018.
Donald Trump and Theresa May meet at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, in July 2018. (Jack Taylor / Pool via Reuters)

With the United States and United Kingdom each in fits of political turmoil, Elaine Godfrey, who covers Congress for The Atlantic, and Yasmeen Serhan, who is based in London and writes about Britain, started asking themselves: What is even going on?

Here is an edited transcript of their conversations in recent weeks, from the shutdown to the present, running through emergencies, defections, and near-constant crises in two of the world’s oldest and most important democracies.

Elaine Godfrey: Hi, Yasmeen! Update from your homeland: The government is open again! I had drinks this weekend with all my furloughed friends to celebrate the end of their 35-day break. I honestly didn’t see it coming: Trump gave in. He signed legislation to fund the entire government, without a cent for his border wall. The only problem is, it’s only three weeks of funding, so we could be back in shutdown mode shortly.

How are things across the pond?

I’m currently sitting in the House press gallery pondering the differences between a fence and a wall …

Yasmeen Serhan: Hey, Elaine! I’m so glad to hear things are returning to normal back home (if normalcy is even a thing anymore). I just got back from a trip to the Netherlands, so I’m still catching up on all the news I’ve missed. I spent the last six days eating my weight in pancakes and stroopwafels, but the best part of the trip was that I didn’t hear a single person mention Brexit. Pure bliss.

Things on this side of the pond haven’t really changed all that much. British politicians are still going crazy over Brexit and how it should happen, which is pretty wild considering the U.K. is supposed to be leaving the European Union soon. Theresa May is going back to Brussels to try and renegotiate her Brexit deal before another vote on February 14. It’s a bit ironic that members of Parliament are going to spend their Valentine’s Day fighting over the longest, most confounding breakup.

I’ve also heard “steel slats” are being used—is that a thing? I honestly can’t keep up.

Elaine: What a terrible breakup story. Wait, so they’re arguing over who gets what when the U.K. moves out?

The Valentine’s Day timeline is pretty similar here, actually! The continuing resolution Trump signed last week funds the U.S. government until February 15, the day after Valentine’s Day. Pretty thoughtful of him. So a small committee of Democrats and Republicans has until then to figure out a solution to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the border.

(Oh, re: steel slats. This is one type of barrier Trump is proposing. He thinks they will be less of an eyesore than one long concrete slab. He’s … probably right?)

Yasmeen: Sort of! They’re basically arguing over how they should break up, and the British side can’t seem to agree even among themselves. Some want a softer breakup that keeps Britain closely aligned with the EU (like, Let’s stay friends!), while others just want a clean break (i.e., It’s over, and I’m keeping the dog). Then there are those who think ending the relationship was a bad idea in the first place (as though to say, It’s not too late for us to work this out!) and want the British people to have a chance to reconsider. It’s all terribly confusing.

But at least it sounds like there is hope for compromise on your side of the Atlantic. How do you suppose Democrats and Republicans will overcome their differences? Even if they don’t, does anyone really have much of an appetite to let the government shut down again?

Ah, looks like the president just settled this debate for us: “A WALL is a WALL.” It’s almost like the British equivalent of “Brexit means Brexit.” Politicians say it, but no one knows what it actually means …

Elaine: Man, I don’t see an easy out here. The 17 people in Congress in charge of reaching a deal said they’re confident that they can work things out, but with Trump haranguing them on Twitter, it’ll be tough for them to compromise. So much of this has come down to semantics. Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she would support some funding for a physical barrier, and that Trump can call it a wall if he wants to. (That seems to be what prompted the “WALL is a WALL” tweet.) It just shows how focused the debate has become on the wall as a political symbol.

It seems similar to the Brexit stuff. Democrats here are okay with a “soft wall,” but Trump sounds like he wants an extremely literal one. Here’s the thing I’m curious about: Is there a real chance that Britain would just … vote again on Brexit?

Yasmeen: They’re totally similar. It seems like politicians in both of our countries are struggling to deliver on the promises they made to voters. For Trump, it’s the big, beautiful wall that Mexico is supposed to pay for. For May, it’s delivering the best possible Brexit deal that will transform Britain into a global trading powerhouse, but without any of the disadvantages of leaving the EU.

I was at this event for American reporters in London last night, and one of the things we were discussing was how the U.S. system seems so much more adept at handling divided government—it was designed to create gridlock and force compromise. The British governing system, on the other hand, just wasn’t set up for that. Parliament is used to having one party in control, not Theresa May’s wafer-thin, divided majority.

As for a second Brexit vote, that’s the million-pound question! I don’t really see much of an appetite for it. Even if it did happen, there are so many questions that would need to be answered, like: What would the new ballot question be? Would remaining in the EU be one of the options? So many unknowns!

Elaine: Good morning, my friend! Update: We have a national emergency!

The committee that was in charge of coming up with a compromise to fund the Department of Homeland Security reached one. But it only offered about $1.3 billion for the wall, which wasn’t enough for the president. So after agreeing to the compromise, Trump declared a state of emergency, which means that he can unlock additional funds to build the wall.

Of course, 16 states are already suing him to stop it, which means it’ll likely be stalled in the courts for a while. All in all, an eventful week.

Yasmeen: Oh, wow. So is this it, then—does this mean he’s getting his wall? Or at least, $1.3 billion of it?

We’re having quite the eventful week here, too! Seven members of Parliament quit the Labour Party because they’re frustrated with where it’s going under its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn. There were rumors that this would happen for a while, but it was still a huge deal when it finally did. They are now going to sit in Parliament as a group of independents, which makes this the biggest defection from a British political party since the 1980s.

Now the question on everyone’s mind in Westminster is who might join them.

Elaine: That’s wild. Why did they leave? Did they disagree with Corbyn about Brexit?

And lol. Not really. The money that congressional negotiators agreed to in the spending bill will go toward 55 miles of fencing in areas along the border, which is … not a lot. And Trump’s national emergency is probably going to be tied up in lawsuits for the foreseeable future. The other thing he did, though—the rerouting of funds from the Treasury, for example—didn’t require a national-emergency declaration. So it seems like he might actually get to use some of that!

Yasmeen: Hah, so about those seven MPs … now they’re 11! And they’re not just Labour folks; three Conservatives jumped ship, too.

In general, they’re all fairly moderate MPs who feel like their parties no longer have a place for them. And of course, none of them are happy about Brexit, either. All of them are supporters of the campaign to have a second referendum.

I wonder how people outside the U.S. and the U.K. view everything that’s happening these days. I mean, these are the two countries that the world looks to for how to run a democracy. Between Brexit and the state of emergency, it doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Elaine: Yeah! Things aren’t going great.

You have two supposed beacons of democracy in political shambles. While the U.S. seems to have avoided another government shutdown—*knocks on wood*—we now have a national emergency that could end up setting a really important precedent for executive power. I mean, a future president could declare a national emergency to fund a Green New Deal–type program, which conservatives would not exactly love.

Yasmeen: Meanwhile, Britain is the country facing what some might call an actual emergency (i.e., all the bad things that could happen if it leaves the EU without a deal, like food shortages), but is pretty much carrying on as usual!

Maybe the U.S. and the U.K. should trade strategies?

Elaine: Um, yes! That sounds a bit more dire that what’s happening here, which is basically a ... formal scolding.

The House of Representatives just passed a resolution to block Trump from using emergency powers to build the wall. If it gets past the Senate—and at least four Republicans will need to vote in favor for that to happen—most people expect Trump to veto it. That would be the first veto of his presidency, and Congress likely doesn’t have the votes to override it.

Anyway, while all this is going on, I’m hearing things about Labor (Labour?) backing another referendum? What does that mean exactly?

Yasmeen: Ah yes, the good old presidential veto. I don’t think that’s something that really exists in British politics. The Queen technically has one, but royal assent is basically a given.

Labour has indeed agreed to back a second referendum! It’s a big (and surprising) step, though it’s still hard to see there being much parliamentary support for it. As one Labour staffer told me, that may not be the point: Even if another Brexit vote doesn’t come to pass, at least Labour can’t be accused of not trying to secure one.

So basically, it’s just a lot of politics. In other major-shift news, May has opened the door for a possible delay to Brexit if her deal doesn’t survive a second vote. So Brexit could happen in 30 days, or not. We won’t really know until two weeks before it’s scheduled to happen.

Elaine: And we won’t really know what happens with Trump’s national emergency until the Senate decides to take it up and vote on it. So far, it looks like there are some Republican senators who may defect.

Wow. Two great democracies, two messy situations. Guess we’re ending on a cliffhanger.