Nine months after its dramatic referendum, Britain is finally demanding formal negotiations on exiting the European Union. Much has changed in the interim. At the time of the June vote, the cohesion of the West appeared to be in jeopardy; Britain seemed doomed to political instability; and the economy seemed at risk of a Lehman Brothers-style convulsion. Today, in contrast, Brexit feels about as electrifying as reading the telecoms annex in the WTO treaty. And yet, on the other hand, this change is deceptive. Anticlimax should not be mistaken for a permanent dodging of the populist bullet.
Where the United States is led by a flamboyant caudillo, a populist perhaps more in style than in his consequences, Britain is experiencing the reverse phenomenon. Theresa May, the po-faced prime minister, is earnest, methodical, cautious and unimaginative: She is the anti-Trump. But the referendum mandate, hardened by her ploddingly literal interpretation of it, is populism undiluted. Britain will take back control of its borders in order, presumably, to clamp down on foreigners. It will largely reject the authority of the European Court of Justice, even though some form of cross-border dispute settlement is an inevitable feature of an interdependent world. It will probably leave the European Single Market, one of the deepest and most successful experiments in globalization.
If the shock factor has worn off since last summer’s referendum, that is partly because May has masked Britain’s radical direction with her soporific style. When Germany signals a tough approach in the forthcoming Brexit talks, or when members of the European Parliament accuse the Brexit camp of lying, there is no indignant counterpunch from May or her lieutenants. Michel Barnier, the European Union’s Brexit negotiator, recently went so far as to threaten Britain with disrupted air traffic, chaotic ports and suspended delivery of nuclear materials. The prime minister’s office barely responded.
During last year’s campaign, Brexit campaigners promised millions in savings on contributions to the E.U. budget. Inverting that premise, the E.U. recently demanded that Britain agree to a stiff “exit bill” before other negotiations start. The bill would reflect E.U. spending projects to which Britain previously committed, plus pension promises to E.U. bureaucrats; the amount remains unknown, but the most frequently cited estimate is about $60 billion — roughly what Britain spends annually on defense. Even this extraordinary price tag has failed to ruffle the prime minister as she has trundled serenely toward this week’s announcement.
Leaving the European Union after more than four decades involves excruciating trade-offs. But, rather than confront these, May’s government offers anesthetic waffle. How might the British economy function without millions of E.U. workers? David Davis, the Brexit minister, explained this week that “from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants,” adding that “you’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the National Health Service — you have to make sure they continue to work.” But if Britain really means to remain open, why sacrifice Single Market membership on the altar of border control?
The same obfuscation applies to the deep questions concerning Britain’s internal cohesion. May’s government simultaneously promises a rigorously hard border with Europe and a friendly soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; this is a bit like walling off Mexico while furnishing comfortable tunnel facilities between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Meanwhile, May is stalling Scotland’s loud demands for another independence referendum. But the Scots, who voted to remain in the European Union, will not be reconciled to Brexit if they are denied a say in whether it applies to them.
May’s tactic of prevarication has been assisted by several lucky breaks. A surprise recovery in the world economy has concealed the economic cost of Brexit; for the moment, British industry benefits from the post-referendum collapse in the exchange rate but has yet to pay the price of lost Single Market access. President Trump’s election has given geo-strategists something bigger to worry about: If the West’s cohesion is indeed unraveling, the chief culprit is in Washington. And May is in the extraordinary position of not facing a coherent domestic opponent. The Labour Party is under the sway of hang-dog neo-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn.
But, with this week’s initiation of the Brexit talks, May will face a harder time. Trade-offs that could be pushed aside, on the argument that they were matters for future negotiation, will come more clearly into focus. The foolish bravado of the Brexiteers, who assured voters that negotiating with 27 other countries would be a simple challenge, will be relentlessly exposed. British businesses, which for the past nine months have been implementing earlier investment commitments, will freeze plans for new expansion. The moment of truth for British populism has come a bit nearer.