Brexit was always a bad idea. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU will be costly to both sides and the damage would be only compounded by the absence of a withdrawal agreement. Besides economic costs, it will diminish the UK’s stature in the world and give new force to secessionist movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Contrary to the optimism of some, the potential upside for Britain in the form of economic and trade liberalization is modest. Conversely, for the EU Brexit means losing the most significant contributor to common European defense and possibly tipping the continent into a recession.
Yet, in a situation in which an unstoppable force meets an immovable object it is difficult to see any other outcome than a hard Brexit.
Killing Brexit by political fiat or a second referendum is unlikely. True, a political leader could simply stand up and say that Brexit is a dumb idea that needs to be abandoned (which is substantively true). But with Liberal Democrats in disarray and Labour captured by the extreme Left, it is hard to see where such leadership could come from. Brexit has already redrawn the political map in the UK, continues to destroy both leading political parties from the inside, and will continue to crowd out every other issue until it is somehow put to rest.
Denmark had a second referendum on the Maastricht Treaty after being granted a number of opt-outs and Ireland held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But those had nowhere near the same level of salience as membership, especially in a country notorious for its lukewarm attitude to the European project. There is, furthermore, no indication of buyer’s remorse on the part of the Brexiteers—if anything, their attitudes have hardened. A second referendum would thus either confirm the result of the 2016 plebiscite, or create a myth of a stab in the back, poisoning British politics for generations.
While Theresa May made a valiant attempt at compromise, after three failed votes in Parliament, the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement is effectively dead. Recently, as many as sixty Conservative MPs pledged to oppose the deal even if the contentious Irish Backstop is dropped, signaling that Ms. May’s effort to strike a bargain with British Euroscepticism was doomed to fail. What remains is a game of chicken between Brussels and Westminster which leads ultimately to a hard Brexit, either through a failure of the current Parliament to stop it or, more likely, through a snap election fought explicitly over the issue of a hard Brexit.
Boris Johnson is counting both on his prowess as a campaigner and on the fact that the short-term damage inflicted by a hard Brexit is going to be limited, contrary to the predictions of imminent doom. Will Brexit be disruptive and costly? Of course it will. However, if it is expected and planned for, the disruption will not take the form of unmitigated chaos on October 31. Planes will continue to fly, there will be food on the shelves of supermarkets, and the Eurostar will not come to a standstill halfway between Dover and Calais. In the short term, even the businesses operating across the border will mostly bite the bullet of increased compliance costs and tariffs.
The bulk of the economic damage in the form of decreased productivity and job losses will come from longer-term business and investment decisions made to get around the new trade barriers. Those will take years to unfold and will simply cause the UK’s economy to grow at a slower rate than if it had unhindered access to the single market. Voters may or may not notice these effects, depending on other policies accompanying Brexit.
In one sense, the potential for unpleasant and politically salient surprises is greater on the continental side. For the British, Brexit looms as the Central Issue of Our Time. For the EU it appears now as a mild annoyance. Yet, the European economy, already on the brink of a downturn, will suffer too from the disruption of existing value chains, and reforms improving Europe’s long-standing competitiveness problem should therefore be high on the agenda of the next European Commission.
No longer having any sway over Brussels, the UK’s role in the world can hardly increase. More likely, the need to access new markets around the world will mean abandoning any pretenses of a values-based foreign policy and may entail cozying up to China. To be sure, given the UK’s stature as one of the few European military powers, Brexit is bad news for the EU-27’s standing in the world as well.
If the entire enterprise is a negative-sum game why can’t the two sides agree on a compromise to soften the blow, especially if the main point of contention is as esoteric and technical as the Irish backstop? The dirty secret is that Brexiteers are probably right that technically feasible alternatives exist that could keep the Irish border open without locking the UK in the customs union with the EU. Checks could take place away from the border. For instance, the United States, Canada, and Mexico operate the so-called FAST program, under which verified commercial carriers undergo expedited customs procedures.
The main reason why the EU cannot, should not, and will not consider such alternatives and revisit the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement has little to with its obstinacy or with an effort to spite or punish the UK. It has everything to do with geopolitics. The current era of great-power competition requires the EU, especially if weakened by Brexit, to build credibility and a reputation for a certain degree of ruthlessness for being able to make decisions and stick with them even when it is temporarily inconvenient. This is not something optional but rather a core European interest. If Europeans allow themselves to be pushed around by the likes of Boris Johnson, there is zero chance the EU will be ever able to throw its weight around when engaging the United States or China. In other words, if they want to break the perceptions epitomized by Kissinger’s “whom do I call” and Kagan’s “Europeans are from Venus” quote, Europeans have to learn to be a bit mean, including towards their close partners. That means, among other things, retaliating forcefully against Donald Trump’s eventual car tariffs and not giving away anything for free to an ex-member of the EU.
One may deplore the situation, but it is simply a fact that a large part of the British debate has accepted the notion that anything short of a hard Brexit would be a betrayal of the mandate created by the 2016 referendum. On substantive grounds, of course, that is a crazy view. Sooner or later, the UK will have to conclude some form of agreement with the EU over trade and political and security cooperation. Leaving now without a withdrawal agreement only means there will be more things to negotiate in the future, possibly with even less goodwill on the EU’s part—especially if the UK fails to honor its existing financial obligations.
Yet politics is not primarily about policy and its substantive merits. For the UK bridge the current era of political dysfunction and extremism, it may need to have a taste of crude majoritarianism, not tempered by the better judgment of those who understand the intricacies issues at hand. As H.L. Mencken quipped, democracy was founded on the idea “that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
There is also something cathartic about starting on a blank slate. To borrow an example from my part of the world, there was no substantive, policy-based case for Slovakia’s independence in the early 1990s. Neither did the issue command majority support in the country; instead most Slovaks simply capitulated to the well-organized, loud minority of nationalists. What followed the break-up in Slovakia were some difficult years, made even worse by the demagoguery and mafia capitalism that spread under Vladimír Mečiar’s watch. Yet, today both countries are prosperous, democratic members of the EU and NATO and the cultural ties between their populations are as close as ever. In retrospect it is hard to see a realistic, politically sustainable counterfactual to the break-up.
Like it or not, a hard Brexit is probably going to happen and on both sides of the English Channel, the goal has to be to make the best out of it. It has taken iterations of various crises for a European foreign policy outlook to emerge. Few could imagine that the EU could sustain an effective regime of sanctions against Russia—until it did. Likewise, the refugee crisis made it strike a cynical but effective deal with Turkey, and the Brexit referendum has led so far to a flurry of free trade agreements that few thought the bloc was capable of concluding. If we are lucky, Brexit may seem in a decade or two like the break-up of Czechoslovakia: an unpleasant crisis situation which was nonetheless bound to happen and which ultimately forced everyone involved to get their act together.