The Brexit Trainwreck

Anti-Brexit protesters in front of the Palace of Westminster in 2017. (Avaaz/Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-Brexit protesters in front of the Palace of Westminster in 2017. (Avaaz/Wikimedia Commons)

Newspaper editors are likely growing tired of publishing headlines about how Brexit, Britain’s plan to leave the European Union, is reaching its culmination. The anticipation of a resolution has consistently given way to disappointment, and this week has been no different. In a flurry of votes, Parliament first rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit plan, but then approved a resolution to avoid a “no-deal Brexit,” which will occur if Parliament and May cannot see eye to eye by the deadline to leave the EU. That deadline was slated to be March 29, but Parliament voted to instruct May to seek an extension with the EU, and also decided against holding a second referendum.

The concept of Brexit has hovered around for decades but did not see light until former Prime Minister David Cameron promised during the 2015 elections to hold a referendum, which he did in 2016. Cameron did so as a power play -- he hoped to remain in the EU and expected a strong Remain victory to solidify his position. He was hopelessly wrong. A 51.9% Leave victory sealed Cameron’s resignation and fostered the ascension of May.

The Brexit vote has become notorious as the harbinger of the nationalist wave that would sweep across the United States and much of Europe. The sentiment to reject the EU rings similarly to the anti-globalism that brought Trump to America, Le Pen to France, and Orban to Hungary. Brexit also typifies the type of binary thinking that is decimating modern politics. The relationship between the U.K. and the EU is multifaceted and complex in a manner that the two simple choices, Leave and Remain, cannot encapsulate. Cameron’s referendum encouraged the concept that there are only ever two sides: one definitely right and one horribly wrong. In reality, complicated modern problems require intricate solutions. This is why our democratic systems emphasize a process centered around consensus, which is lost through a simple up or down vote.

The Brexit referendum violated one of the foundational principles of representative democracy. Republicanism has proven far more effective than direct democracy because it allows the people to choose leaders who can tackle issues that the people do not have the time to understand, and that the leaders are more capable in approaching. The U.K.-EU relationship is an excellent example of a topic that could take months if not years to fully grasp, and voters in a general election almost never put in a fraction of this effort. The voters’ plight is further complicated by the advent of mass disinformation campaigns spurred forward by social media. Widely spread false claims included the assertion that Brexit did not mean the U.K. would leave the EU single market, or that two-thirds of British manufacturing jobs depended on the EU. Leaders do not have perfect information and neither are they perfect decision-makers. Yet they are still better-positioned than voters as it is their full-time job to assess political questions. Additionally, the 51.9% result is a clear instance of a tyranny of the majority. Contemporary republican systems possess safeguards to prevent the unilateral imposition of a majority’s will and to ensure some sort of compromise. A referendum offers no such recourse.

Despite all its folly, the referendum took place, and it is now more important to consider the best route moving forward. Currently, May must request a deadline extension from the EU. It is in the EU’s best interest to agree, as a no-deal Brexit would hurt both sides, and an EU refusal would sour the relationship. Yet there is no purpose to an extension if it cannot bring about a deal that the last three years have been unable to produce, and there is the slight chance that the EU could deny an extension to force the U.K. into a tight situation in which they may cave. May similarly sees the deadline extension as a bargaining tool. Her apparent plan is to bring her proposed deal to Parliament for a third time, thinking she can coerce moderates with the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit while persuading hardliners with the idea that a long deadline extension could cause the cancellation of Brexit completely. However, May has little sway, even in her own Conservative Party, so a deadline extension appears more likely.

May’s unpopularity has led many to suggest that the Conservative Party should seek a replacement as prime minister. A stronger leader will not somehow be able to wave a wand and bridge the divides in Parliament. A new prime minister would be more likely to add increasing uncertainty to an already chaotic puzzle. Another idea would be a new general election to remake Parliament. The government must govern, and if it cannot it should be replaced. In spite of that, the Conservatives are unlikely to agree to an election. They called a snap election in 2017, hoping to strengthen their hand, but lost seats instead. There is also the likelihood that another election in a divided U.K. would bring Parliament back close to its current point while delaying any possible resolution in the meantime.

If the EU grants the U.K. an extension Parliament could come to terms eventually, although history does not suggest optimism. The votes in Parliament and public polling have demonstrated that the majority of the U.K. feels a no-deal Brexit is in nobody’s interest. Hardliners who advocate for such a plan claim that the U.K. would then be free to negotiate its own, better trade deals with individual nations. The absurdity should be apparent. A country will not become a beacon of free trade by leaving the world’s largest trading bloc. This is not even to mention the additional complications a no-deal Brexit would bring, such as the case of the Irish border. The Belfast Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland allowed Irish and British citizens to live side-by-side under different constitutions. The difficulty of resolving this situation in the event of a no-deal Brexit cannot be overstated.

With all this said, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Brexit is Parliament’s decision to reject a second referendum. While the first referendum should never have occurred, a second referendum may be the U.K.’s best way forward. The binary thinking evident in the 2016 referendum misled the nation, and its format has hamstrung the parliamentary process. The British people deserve the chance to reconsider what exactly it is that they want. They should be able to directly decide what form of Brexit they desire, or whether they want the plan to move forward at all. A second referendum would also solve one of the major ills of the first. The Leave result provoked wildly varying interpretations of the people’s will. Evidently, the referendum’s mandate cannot be so many things at once. Clarity has long been absent from Britain. Another vote could herald its return.