If a week is a long time in politics, then surely three months is a millennium. But that is precisely how much time has passed since British voters narrowly rejected the status quo and gave the boot to the European Union. “Brexit means Brexit” is more vague than ever. Despite having a process to leave – Article 50, which even its progenitor claimed wasn’t really meant to be used – the United Kingdom remains a member, with no plan for a getaway.
At home of course there have been drastic changes. The vote to leave saw the downfall of a prime minister, one who took a gamble, and lost. The true architect of the referendum, Nigel Farage, also bowed out (although he is known for his frequent returns). An already brutal civil war in the Labour Party has turned into an all-out brawl with one columnist even pleading for Tony Blair to return to the fray. With no effective opposition, the UK stands to become a curiously one-party state, with debates between the centre-right Conservative majority and its more unhinged, hard Eurosceptic far right.
Brexit? What Brexit?
The economy has been chugging along, which Brexiteers say is proof that the remain campaign lied about economic catastrophe post-Brexit. They are wrong, of course; as the UK hasn’t left the EU, there are no trade barriers, not tariffs, and no change in relations to measure an actual effect.
All this turmoil and distraction at home might make Theresa May feel she has more time to hammer out Brexit. After all, no solid details about post-Brexit Britain have been released. Members of May’s government have given the odd line about trading with the rest of the world, and vague “what ifs” of a positive future, but every time a sliver of a plan comes through, it is quickly shot down by Downing Street. Whispers of a plan to leave the single market, for example, were rebuffed with the typical “we are exploring all options” soundbite.
Britain is not set up for referendums
Part of this is due to the nature of the referendum itself. Britain, unlike some other democracies, doesn’t hold such votes often. A democracy that has had hundreds of years of parliamentary sovereignty pounded into its history doesn’t like to give too much away to the people. Places like California hold referendums on very specific terms – tax laws, for example, where a yes vote means enacting a law that has already been prepared. Brexit on the other hand was a wild card. Truthfully, there is not simple in or out for Britain. There is “soft Brexit”, which could involve joining the European Economic Area, retaining freedom of movement and EU regulation, which would be a tough pill to swallow for the Eurosceptics, but might please the 48% who voted to remain. Then there is “hard Brexit”, which barmy advocates say should be triggered immediately. Under this plan Britain would trade with Europe under WTO rules – with no special arrangements. Then there are many options in between – bilateral deals, like Switzerland; a “simple” free trade agreement, like Canada (seven years on and still not in force), or a bespoke deal.
With so many options, some are tempted to return to the electorate for consent once any deal is hammered out. The former Cameron government forbid any officials from planning a Brexit, in case it turned out well on paper and the details leaked. But such planning, even from remainers, would probably be indispensable now.
The leave camp is just as fractured as well. For a campaign that was so passionate, and with such a clear message, the lack of details and unity on a post-Brexit Britain is astonishing. Some Brexiteers want to preserve access to the single market and customs union, while the most egregious proponents want every EU citizen already in Britain to have to apply for visas.
The clock is ticking
The blame for this lack of action lies squarely on both sides. David Cameron should not have asked a question he could not answer; why should Britain stay in the EU? The leave campaign should not have made promises they couldn’t keep, secretly thinking they couldn’t win. Euroscepticism, like any form of populism, works best when it is the underdog. Now that it is mainstream, the lack of plans or action makes it seem like it is all talk.
Time is on Britain’s side for now. Only the member state planning to leave can initiate Article 50. But those who voted to leave – and indeed, those who voted to remain – will want to know what Britain will look like post-Brexit. That’s not to mention the other 27 EU states who will want to press on without their most awkward member.
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