The current turmoil over Brexit seems to fit the textbook definition of a pyrrhic victory. No matter what side prevails, for all the gains made, the losses will be heavy. To some extent, all sides will have lost face. The government will have lost face with the majority of voters in the 2016 referendum for delivering a ‘No Brexit Brexit’, the Brexiteers will have lost face for not having effectively held the powers-that-be to the promise, and the EU – through its negotiating tactics and bombast – will have lost face both in terms of being a reliable post-Brexit ally, or a viable partner if Brexit is successfully stopped.
In short, nobody comes out of this unscathed.
In the eye of a storm, it’s often difficult to discern how these things can end up to be such a dog’s breakfast. It takes some detachment and a longer view.
The narrative has been that Britain is divided into Leavers and Remainers, and that what we are seeing is the internecine battle between the two camps – one who wants what they were promised and one who will pull out the stops to prevent it, referendum loss be damned. If it were as simple as that, this soap opera would have ended already, and a reasonable deal would have been reached.
The fact is that there are not two, but three, factions in this fight, and the interplay between them is the cause of this turmoil.
One faction are the ‘federalists’ – people who were among the most virulent supporters of the Remain campaign, and who believe in the creation of a European Federation, with the UK as a member province. For them, anything less than full integration into a United States of Europe would be unacceptable, and they are willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent it – even to ignore the results of the 2016 vote and scuttle Brexit by whatever means possible.
Another faction are the ‘sovereigntists’ – people who are comfortable with economic dealings with Europe, but steadfastly maintain that Britain remain politically independent. For them, a successor free trade deal would give both Britain and the EU what they need.
But there is a third faction. These are the people who, to a great extent, are driving the process and are creating the much of the chaos. They are the ones who believe that you can have a large degree of integration with EU rules, regulations and directives and yet remain ostensibly independent. For them, there is a very narrow window where Britain can be both integrated into the European project and free to chart its own path. They are on the quest for this perfect balance, and believe that when they find that spot on the Treasure Map, the rewards will be substantive enough to satisfy federalists and sovereigntists alike.
Let’s call this faction ‘Group X’, for ‘X’ marks the spot for this elusive Grail-like prize for those who are committed and determined enough to seek it and endure all of the hardships along the way. They are the ones in the driver’s seat at present – the ones that believe that you can deliver both independence from, and further integration into, the European Union.
Their confidence stems from learning the wrong lessons from history. Yes, Britain successfully managed to secure a rebate, and yes, it did not go into the Eurozone, but these ‘victories’ owed as much to the federalists offering temporary terms as they played the long game. Sure, Britain got these accommodations now, but down the road they could be reversed once the domestic political situation was more Eurofriendly. The federalists, sensing that pushing too hard and too quickly would foment…well, a hard Brexit…moderated their stance accordingly. It was a strategic retreat, which ‘Group X’ interpreted as owing to their superior negotiating skills and talent.
In other words, if ‘Group X’ was successful in curtailing European Federalist ambitions in the past, it was partly because the Eurofederalists reasoned that it was smarter to offer concessions in the short-term so as to keep their powder dry for the longer, more important, battles to come. The great sin of the Group X’ers was in reading their opponents’ strategic retreat as some sort of inspired victory. It encouraged ego and hubris – the kind that believes that you can deliver a Brexit that still commits Britain to EU rules and directives.
What has changed?
Well, for the ‘sovereigntists’, nothing really. The ‘Canada ++’ option is clearly coherent in its objective and approach – that Britain be an economic partner of the EU, but not a political subsection of it. Clear and reasoned. That’s what the ‘Leave’ campaign was about.
The ‘federalists’ are unchanged as well, with the exception that Brexit has brought out the kind of tendencies one sees when a marriage goes irrevocably bad. The EU switch – from finding a workable compromise to throwing out threats of a hard border between Eire and Northern Ireland and whether Gibraltar remains British – resembles that of a spurned spouse who, having failed with the roses and chocolates, now starts to scream invectives about taking the house, the furniture and denying time with the children. The referendum result, having made the gentle and gradual integration project null and void, has meant that the façade and pretext of niceties have been stripped away.
What has not changed is ‘Group X’ – or at least those who still remain in its ranks. They are the ones who still believe that they can deliver a deal that those who want Britain to be independent of Brussels and those who want Britain in a ‘United States of Europe’ can say equally ‘This works for me!’ That is why the British people have been offered what amounts to a ‘Hotel California Brexit’, where ‘you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.’
To be blunt, the Group X’ers are not clever enough to strike a compromise between Leave and Remain – no one is. Ego, hubris and a misreading of minor accommodations over the last couple of decades have blinded them to the reality they must confront.
Trying to be all things to all people leaves you being nothing to anyone – and the sooner that realization creeps in, the sooner a workable succession plan can be finalized.