The Great British Humbling

Like the bind of a tortuous finger trap, Britain’s Brexit conundrum grows tighter and more painful the more the country wrestles with it.

A drawing of two men facing off in a duel
The Print Collector / Heritage Images / Getty

“The cretinous stupidity of it!” snaps the tragic hero in Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March as he faces up to his likely death in a duel over his wife’s honor. He did not want the fight and no longer loves his wife anyway, but the “stupid, steely law” of honor that bound his cavalry regiment left him no escape. In frustration, he sighs: “I don’t have the strength to run away from this stupid duel. I will become a hero out of sheer idiocy.”

Here we are, then, back to the cretinous stupidity of the Brexit conundrum—a conundrum created by a law as steely as Roth’s code of honor. The law is this: Because Britain is leaving the European Union’s economic zone at the end of the year, an economic border must be erected with the EU—and borders must go somewhere. This reality cannot be escaped.

Normally the requirement would not be a problem; borders usually go where one sovereign country ends and another begins. But the land where Britain must place this border with the EU, Northern Ireland, is not normal. Because of its particular history and demography, placing physical border controls between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a separate country, could, it is claimed, upend the delicate political settlement that exists in this unique corner of the world. Whether this is true or not, the EU has, in any case, decreed that it will not sign any deal with Britain that creates a land border in Ireland. That leaves Britain with the painful option of creating a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. In other words, Britain has to either institute an internal border or try to avoid one altogether by staying tied to EU rules in perpetuity, even after it has left the bloc.

For four years now, ever since the British public voted in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, Britain has struggled with this inescapable law. And like some kind of tortuous finger trap, the more London has fought against it, the tighter and more painful the bind has become.

The upshot is that Britain is now staring at a diplomatic defeat that would have seemed almost unimaginable just a few years ago. Since the Brexit referendum, the country has somehow contrived to negotiate an economic border within its own territory and the possible loss of all preferential trading rights with its largest market. For a long time, most observers had taken for granted that Britain would end up paying one of these prices for Brexit—but not both. The cherry on top of this diplomatic-failure sundae is that the U.K. will also have to pay billions of euros for the privilege of divorcing the EU.

As if this scenario were not chastening enough, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government last week made it worse in an attempt to make it better by once again returning to its wrestling match with the finger trap. The British government published legislation, designed to limit the scale of the economic border with Northern Ireland, that it admitted reneged on key sections of the divorce treaty it had signed with the EU, which Johnson himself negotiated last year. Britain claimed that such a drastic step was necessary because the EU was not acting in good faith in the trade negotiations, and the bloc’s behavior risked turning what would ostensibly be a light, barely noticeable internal border into something much thicker. Johnson’s government has claimed that, should this happen, it would be a threat to peace in Northern Ireland, because it would not be acceptable to the unionist community there, which favors remaining part of the U.K.

Johnson’s brinkmanship may yet work and result in a more lasting political fix. One of his closest aides told me to withhold judgment, pointing out that Britain had not yet broken any treaty obligation and that negotiations over a trade deal were ongoing. Just the announcement that it was prepared to break the treaty, however, set off explosions of anger across Europe and the United States rarely seen in diplomatic relations. The EU warned that it was prepared to take legal action against Britain; the German ambassador to London said he had never experienced such a rapid deterioration of trust; and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, cautioned that such a move would end any hope of a trade deal with Washington.

All of this marks a fitting finale to Britain’s catastrophic mismanagement of the Brexit process, which started with the resignation of the prime minister who called the referendum without any plan for what would happen if he lost it (David Cameron); continued with his successor triggering a two-year countdown to Britain’s final withdrawal without any plan for what future relationship she wanted to negotiate (Theresa May); and was followed by her successor signing an international treaty without any guarantee of a future trade deal, only then to rip up this agreement when its consequences began to reveal themselves (Johnson). Regardless of the merits of Brexit, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Britain’s leaders dealt themselves one bad hand after another—and proceeded to play them badly.

It is perfectly possible to defend many of the individual positions successive British governments took during this calamitous period of statecraft and, indeed, to criticize the positions taken by the EU and its member states. Was London right, for example, that too little heed had been paid to the concerns of unionists in Northern Ireland? Perhaps. And did the EU abuse its position of strength to force concessions out of the British that contributed to today’s breakdown in trust? Again, perhaps.

It should also be said that Britain has had some achievements, however temporary, these past years. In November 2018, May persuaded Brussels to let the whole of the U.K. remain in the EU’s customs union, an attempt to circumnavigate the border conundrum by avoiding the need for a border altogether. This achievement, however, was refused by members of Parliament on the legitimate grounds that it meant Britain becoming an EU rule follower even after it had left the EU. And a year later Johnson persuaded Brussels to agree to a “consent mechanism,” giving the elected assembly in Northern Ireland the right to reject the new border regime. This breakthrough, while not circumventing the old border law of Brexit, gave the deal some democratic legitimacy.

Yet whatever the merits of such criticisms, and the successes Britain won, the central point remains: The EU is under no obligation to act in Britain’s interests, only its own. It can hardly be blamed for protecting its leverage and trying to negotiate the best possible outcome for its remaining members. If Britain did not like the position it found itself in, it has only itself to blame for voting to leave, for starting the countdown clock, for agreeing to the Johnson deal. No one else did that for the U.K.

After clinching his deal, Johnson took it to the country at large in a general election—and returned with an overwhelming majority to “get Brexit done.” With months to go before Britain’s departure from the EU’s economic zone, though, the prime minister has now decided to once again return to the border problem. And by claiming that the deal he reached last year amounts to a threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland, he risks undermining his most significant diplomatic achievement, the consent mechanism. It was designed for the very scenario he now warns about: in case the people of Northern Ireland find the practical application of the deal he agreed to intolerable.

Amid the growing fallout over Johnson’s move, a friend from the U.S. got in touch. Is Johnson’s decision theater or catastrophe? he asked. Is it, in other words, a tactic to wrestle concessions out of the EU, or an implicit acknowledgment of the scale of the diplomatic defeat that has occurred? I replied that, in some ways, the answer doesn’t matter: Both explanations reveal the real story underneath—that through its own choices, Britain has put itself in such a weakened position that it has finally resorted to either threatening or actually breaking international law to reassert some strength. Neither explanation is good.

The tragedy, of course, is that like Roth’s duel, this situation has no winners. Should the EU and the U.K. fail to reach a trade agreement and Britain renege on its treaty commitments, one of the most significant trading, military, security, and diplomatic relationships on Earth—between the major powers of Western Europe—will be materially damaged. Yes, Britain will be hurt harder, but that is hardly the point.

In The Radetzky March, the duel takes place. “The regimental doctor raised his pistol,” Roth writes. “He felt brave and free, yes, for the first time in his life, even a little exuberant.” A short distance away, the doctor’s friend awaits news of the outcome. “The Major stopped, half turned in his saddle, and merely said: ‘Both of them!’ Then, as he rode on, more to himself than to the Lieutenant: ‘Couldn’t be helped.’”

But it could.