Yet there is a greater risk than stasis: that any election held before Brexit occurs will unleash forces that may prove uncontrollable and irreversible, making reconciliation—between Britain and Europe, between Britain and Ireland, even between Britain’s domestic parties—harder, not easier.
An election before Brexit would see Britain’s warring tribes go into battle seeking mandates for principles that are not only incompatible but in direct conflict, which would risk worsening regional, political, and sectarian resentments—thereby stretching Britain’s political unity to a breaking point. In Scotland, separatists will demand a mandate from the majority there who oppose Brexit to stop the split from being forced on them by the rest of the country. In Northern Ireland, Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists will urge their supporters to rally to their existential causes, the union with Britain and Irish reunification respectively, which had been settled by a decades-old peace treaty. And in England and Wales, where the majority supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum, voters will be asked to put aside previous political loyalties to rally to new objectives. What will emerge is unknowable, but risks fundamentally reshaping Britain’s relationship not only with the rest of the world, but also with itself.
Read: Brexit and Britain’s Northern Ireland déjà vu
The Brexit crisis is deep because the dilemma at its heart is a simple question: As a sovereign state, can the U.K. leave the EU in its entirety to conduct its own trade policy, or must Northern Ireland, the one part of the country that shares a land border with the EU, remain tied to some degree to European law to permanently avoid border controls with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member state?
London says, as a fundamental point of principle, that the U.K. must have the right to leave the EU as one united country. If this is not accommodated, Johnson has threatened, the U.K. will leave without a deal altogether. The EU, however, has countered that, as an equally fundamental point of principle, a border must be erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if different laws apply in the two. To not do so, it says, would be a threat to its sovereignty. Yet both sides also do not want a border to go up, because it would threaten the delicate peace settlement in Northern Ireland. It may be 2019, but Europe is arguing about whose writ runs in whose territory—all very Westphalia 1648.
The stakes could barely be higher: peace in Ireland, supply chains across the continent, security and police cooperation, financial stability, economic growth, cross-border travel, citizens’ rights. Were relations between Britain and the EU to be poisoned, almost every European country would be affected, from France and Germany, which risk losing a major foreign-policy partner, to Spain and Cyprus, which share borders with British overseas territories. Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium risk economic shocks; eastern-European countries major diplomatic headaches over the rights of their citizens in Britain. Outside of the Continent, the United States, Japan, China, and India, all of which have major investments in the U.K., face serious complications for their businesses.