The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brexit looks more and more like a bad joke

Even if you’re not a fan of British humor, it’s hard not to laugh a little at Brexit.

Sure, there have been bigger disasters in history, but it’s rare to find dumber ones. The whole idea, after all, behind Britain leaving the free-trade zone that is the European Union was for it to “take back control” from the bureaucrats in Brussels so that it could ... make its own free-trade deal with the European Union? Well, that and keep immigrants out.

The problem, though, is that the E.U. links the free movement of goods to the free movement of people. It won’t give you one without the other. So the only way Brexit wouldn’t be a worse deal than the one Britain already has would be if the deal wasn’t really Brexit in any meaningful sense of the word. Which is to say if it was just a fig leaf that kept Britain’s current relationship with the E.U. more or less intact while giving it a new name. But then what would the point of all this be? Well, that’s the joke. (I told you, it’s British humor.)

Now, in case all of this wasn’t already absurd enough, there’s another layer to it: Northern Ireland. It’s the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with an E.U. country, and the fact that you can’t tell that — there are no checkpoints or barriers between the two — is one of the great achievements of the peace process of the past 25 years. Why does that matter? Well, a “hard” Brexit that pulled Britain out of the E.U.'s customs union would end all that. Everything that moved between Ireland and Northern Ireland would suddenly need to be inspected to make sure that it complied with the other’s different rules and regulations. Which, of course, is a nonstarter for the Northern Irish, whose votes British Prime Minister Theresa May needs to maintain her slim parliamentary majority.

Members of Parliament heaped criticism on British Prime Minister Theresa May Dec. 10 after she postponed a vote on the Brexit deal with the European Union. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

So if economic pragmatism wasn’t enough of a reason to prefer a “soft” Brexit that changed very little, political expedience would seem to be more than one. And it has been. Indeed, the May government has agreed to what’s known as an “Irish backstop” that would keep all of Britain in the E.U.'s customs union for an indefinite period of time. The idea being that Northern Ireland needs to remain in to prevent a hard border from being set up between it and Ireland, and that the rest of the United Kingdom needs to then stay in as well to prevent an economic border from being set up between it and Northern Ireland. In the meantime, Britain and E.U. would work on hammering out a new deal that would supposedly resolve all of these contradictory issues — taking Britain out of the E.U.'s customs union without taking Northern Ireland either out of it or out of the United Kingdom’s customs union — at a later date.

The problem is that this compromise isn’t good enough for the biggest Brexit backers in May’s Conservative Party, who really believed that the only reason they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too was that Brussels wouldn’t let them. And so now it’s up to her to try to come up with a solution to a problem that doesn’t have one. The simple story is that a win for British sovereignty — a hard Brexit — would be a loss not only for the British economy but also for Irish integration. And while they might be willing to make that first trade-off, that’s not the case for the second.

Which is why it wouldn’t be surprising if all this ended the most fitting way possible: with another vote that gives them a chance to pretend that none of this ever happened.