international analysis and commentary

The Brexit dilemma: what British people are thinking about the divorce


Ever since the final months of the referendum campaign that culminated with the June 23rd vote to leave the European Union, the debate about Brexit has penetrated every corner of British public opinion. Every media outlet in the country has hosted a debate about it and people have been particularly vocal on the subject. This is even more so now that the High Court has ruled that a parliamentary vote is needed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which allows a member state to leave the Union.

The Brexit affaire has taken on additional importance now that is – almost inexorably – viewed in conjunction with the surprising result of the US presidential vote. And some similarities are indeed striking: it is important to remember that both the Leave and the Trump campaigners built their political success aiming initially at a small and very specific group of voters that ultimately served as the mobilized core of an anti-establishment revolt. In fact, even though the Leave vote passed with a 52% majority, one can easily argue that Brexit still means different things to different people. This ambiguity has been present since the beginning of the referendum campaign and policy makers are greatly responsible for this. The chaos in public opinion is a result of events both in Downing Street and in Westminster.

The main argument for the Remain supporters was, and to some extent still is, that staying in the European Union is the lesser of two evils. The frustration towards Brussels was balanced by the argument that leaving the European Union would have deepened the economic crisis and anxiety about the future. There was a sense that the government, then led by David Cameron, could win even more leeway from Brussels and strengthen the British view of the European Union. It is not surprising that Remain supporters were mostly middle class and geographically stronger in regions with a more international profile, particularly the London area and those parts of the country that host large academic communities. To these people the EU is less of an abstract concept than it is to the residents of the “rust belt” stretching from parts of Wales to Northern England.

Remain voters are likely to be the most immediate beneficiaries of the European Union as seen from London: free movement of people, goods and services. Nowhere as in the UK is “single market” a synonym to the EU. Remainers were also less frustrated with the Eaton-educated ruling class that has run the show in recent decades and that is clearly the great loser in this affaire (although the former Mayor of London and Leave leader, Boris Johnson, happens to be one of the Eaton boys and has managed to find himself in the office of Foreign Secretary). Remainers also had the support of the financial world and key players in the economic sector, the luxury industry and the arts, as well as that of most intellectuals. Cosmopolitan Britain clearly wanted to stay because it saw the European Union as good business combined with the chance to easily have romantic holidays in the EU.

According to a YouGov survey, Remain supporters are still in the denial phase of the grief process and will be for the foreseeable future. They simply cannot believe that the majority of people living in Britain wanted to leave the EU. In terms of political representation, Remain supporters are quite disappointed with their leadership but still hope for the so-called “soft Brexit”: outside the Union but with privileged access to the single market. That is why a parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50 has rekindled the debate about Brexit. Nobody is really going as far as hoping that Brexit will ultimately not happen or that a second referendum should be held on the kind of negotiation Britain should undertake with the European Union, but still other options have been presented by the media.

One vivid example is the November 3rd statement by Scottish cross bench Lord Kerry to the BBC, who is the very author of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In his opinion, Article 50 is absolutely reversible: the UK could go back on its decision and the other member states couldn’t do anything about it except demand a bit of political severance and be angered by the waste of time. The Guardian for instance has often argued that the current government does not have the full legitimacy or the political strength to carry on along the Brexit route. And Theresa May has recently lost two MPs from her majority (although just one of them over the Brexit cause). Bookmakers have lowered the odds of snap elections early in 2017, after the High Court ruling about the necessity of a parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50. This will be discussed in the Supreme Court in early December and a verdict is expected in early January of next year.

To the Leave supporters, the parliamentary vote about Brexit is as unwelcome as it could be before turning to simply heinous as the one thing they know to this point is the timetable for Brexit that Prime Minister Theresa May has given to the press following the Conservative Party Conference held in Birmingham in October: Article 50 would be triggered in the spring of 2017 so that the UK would complete the two-year exit negotiation process  by the spring of 2019. Leave supporters voted against Brussels and everything it represents: from the free movement of people to diminished sovereignty for Britain. They loathed the Cameron government but now cling to the government’s words that “Brexit means Brexit”. They will feel betrayed by anything less. Yet, they too have been deceived in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

Apart from the many who stated that they voted against the government and did not understand the full political consequences of the vote, Leave supporters were troubled by the news that leaving the EU would not equal more money for the National Health System, as promised by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage – who admitted lying about it. Tabloids are still doing their part to fuel anti-EU sentiment but this has proven to be an easy job. Above all, Leave supporters are the least interested in the desiderata of financial London and fear that a soft Brexit would strip them of the key objective of their vote: control over immigration.

The climate is certainly tense in the UK. Recently in London police were distributing leaflets outside the main subway stations to encourage people to report hate crimes. Newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been particularly vocal about this subject and has repeatedly stated that London is a welcoming city to everybody and that immigration is a resource for the city.

A hard Brexit will not do for Londoners (particularly its financial community), or Scotland. But as argued by many economic and political analysts, at a closer look, it also would be a loss for the poorest members of the working class. Ultimately, even those Leavers who loathe globalization will come to realize their neighborhood is better off within larger boundaries than in mythological isolation. One example comes from Cornwall, a depressed region strongly dependent on EU funds that is now pressing the government to take the issue into account.

In the end nobody really knows what Brexit really is, nor what was meant to be, or will be. It is quite a dilemma. It seems that Britons are lost on one fundamental British value: they can hardly keep calm and carry on. If the economic sector is trying to insure itself against the turmoil of uncertainty which is bad for business, even insurance policies are due to expire. As politics is failing to give real answers more chaos is arising. Scotland is threatening a new referendum for independence as the majority of its citizens voted for Remain. Northern Ireland also has a delicate matter on its hands as it recently achieved peace after decades of civil war. Some people are uncertain for their jobs or the way of life they have enjoyed until now, while others want the situation to change but still do not know how.

If the government is not prepared to tell both the parliament and, above all, the British public what Brexit really means, Britain most likely will face many years stuck on a debate that clearly has little if no significance outside its borders. The European Union does not seem overly interested in soft or hard Brexit choices and the same goes for new potentially strong economic partners for Britain, such as Japan or India. Britain could find herself not only outside the European Union, but also outside the main political debate in Europe and elsewhere.