|On Monday, BBC journalist Chris Mason summed up the state of Brexit talks with a blunt admission. “People like me are paid . . . to have insight and foresight and hindsight about these things,” he said. “Looking at things right now, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks.“By Wednesday evening, there was only slightly more clarity. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her cabinet had, following a “long, detailed and impassioned debate,” agreed on a draft withdrawal plan with the European Union.|
The outlines of the divorce were finalized with E.U. counterparts earlier this week following months of fitful negotiations.May framed the day’s developments as a “decisive step” toward an orderly separation from the European Union, hoping to assuage fears that Britain could exit the continental bloc without any deal in place. The draft agreement, which is hundreds of pages long, leaves open the possibility that Britain could remain indefinitely in a customs union with the European Union. It also has provisions preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, one of the biggest sticking points in the talks.In a news conference in Brussels, Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief negotiator on Brexit, welcomed signs of progress in London.
“The United Kingdom will remain our friend, our partner, our ally,” Barnier added.Even so, Brexit is hardly a fait accompli. “Whatever happens, this deal is just the first stage of the lengthy process of ratifying Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. To follow are negotiations over Britain’s future trade, security and economic relations with Europe — including side deals about immigration levels,” noted my colleagues.The deal with the European Union requires endorsement from European heads of state. Far more difficult will be a vote in Britain’s Parliament, where May’s plan may yet falter. At least a third of May’s own cabinet members balked over the draft agreement, and the right-wing Northern Irish party that joined May’s Conservatives in a ruling coalition will likely resist measures that legally separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the country.In histrionic language, proponents of a “hard” Brexit decried May’s accommodation with the E.U. as a “betrayal” that left Britain in thrall to “colonial rule from Brussels.”
“It’s vassal state stuff,” said Boris Johnson, who resigned as May’s foreign secretary this summer after disagreeing with the course of negotiations. “For the first time in 1,000 years, this place, this Parliament will not have a say over the laws that govern this country.” There was rampant speculation on Wednesday that disgruntled hard-liners may force a vote of confidence on May’s leadership within days.Moderate voices lashed back, asking Brexiteers what they expected. “There was never any prospect of a good deal. Brexit is a salvage operation; even when it is done well, the boat is not in the condition it was before it sank,” wrote Alex Massie in the center-right Spectator. He added that “there is a piquant irony in seeing committed Brexiteers complaining that if this is the deal, it’s worse than remaining a full member of the E.U.”Brexit was a defining moment for Western politics. It prefigured the rise of anti-immigrant parties elsewhere in Europe. President Trump, then considered a long shot against Hillary Clinton, seized upon its victory as a good omen for his own insurgency against a liberal establishment.
British politicians like Johnson and Trump ally Nigel Farage offered visions of returning the country to its glory days, taking back control of its laws and its future from bureaucrats across the Channel.But it was never as simple as that. May, who tepidly opposed Brexit before the referendum, has found it nearly impossible to navigate around both the demands of Brexit cheerleaders and the vastly superior negotiating position of the E.U. And the chaotic attempts to forge an agreement have led to growing calls for a new referendum on whether Brexit should happen at all.New polls suggest a majority of Britons would favor holding another referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Last month, some 700,000 pro-E.U. protesters marched through London demanding a second vote.But that would require quite a few parliamentary twists and turns. For now, attention is focused on the scale of the potential rebellion against May. Not only is a significant portion of her own party angry, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has decried the “shambolic handling” of the Brexit negotiations and is also likely to reject her plan if it reaches a vote.There’s still the prospect of some Labour MPs “breaking the party whip to bail out Theresa May’s deal,” explained the left-leaning New Statesman. “Many of their number want to avert a no-deal Brexit and worry that voting against May’s deal will trigger one, and others are worried what will happen to them if they get on the wrong side of their constituents.”
But if May’s gambit fails, the ensuing weeks and months could produce ministerial resignations, a putsch against May and snap elections. “The impression is of a never-ending Brexit crisis, one that erodes trust in democracy,” observed an editorial in the Guardian.And beyond that, there’s the already mounting economic and social impact of this sundering of the union.“Brexit is a human tragedy. Lost jobs, lost prospects and not a few lives (Brits in the EU, Europeans in the UK) genuinely wrecked,” tweeted the Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe. “And all for a fantasy vision of an absolute, unlimited, all-or-nothing sovereignty that never existed and never will exist.”