LONDON — It wa s two years ago this week that Britain voted in a historic referendum to leave the European Union. And by now, Brexit was supposed to be pretty far along, with “quick” negotiations starting to yield beautiful trade deals and the glimmer of independence.
But this conscious uncoupling is turning out to be far more difficult and acrimonious than promised.
Nigel Farage, the politician, radio showman and arch-Brexiteer, tweeted a cartoon this week showing frustrated Britons, some with “Leave” buttons and others with “Remain” buttons, shouting as one, “For heaven’s sake, get on with it!”
British leaders — both in the governing Conservative Party and the Labour Party opposition — apparently can’t get on with it, though, because they can’t agree what “it” is.
A stubborn three-way divide over Brexit persists nine months before it is supposed to go into effect, between supporters of a hard, clean divorce with the European Union and a soft, fuzzy separation — followed by a third alternative, all those who want a do-over in a repeat referendum (these folks don’t want any Brexit at all).
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly survived a crunch vote, fending off a second attempt by Westminster’s unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, to push through an amendment that would give Parliament the power — “a meaningful vote” is the term of art — to stop Brexit in the case that May and Brussels fail to ink a deal.
May cheered the passage of an “E.U. withdrawal bill,” without the constraining amendment, as “an important step in delivering the Brexit people voted for, a Brexit that gives Britain a brighter future, a Britain in control of its money, laws and borders.”
In a statement, she said that the day’s votes “show people in the UK, and to the EU, that the elected representatives in this country are getting on with the job, and delivering on the will of the British people.”
Yet May hasn’t been able to get support from her own Cabinet on what a Brexit deal should look like, and she is oceans away from meeting the demands of the E.U.
Next week, she is headed back to Brussels for what was previously billed as a make-or-break negotiating session with European leaders but will now be much less. Her team delayed the publication of a blueprint on the future U.K.-E.U. relations until July, or whenever, because her Cabinet cannot agree.
European officials now say the Brexit deal is unlikely to be hammered out until October, maybe November — alternatively, before Christmas.
Absent an agreement with the E.U. on commerce, defense, immigration, monetary and myriad other arrangements, Britain would be free of Europe, yes, but estranged from its largest trading and security partner.
This “cliff-edge” Brexit remains a possibility.
May’s negotiators say they need the credible threat of walking away from negotiations to muscle Brussels to favorable compromise.
A no-deal finale terrifies Britain’s business and financial establishment, among many others.
Two-thirds of those surveyed in a British YouGov poll said the May government is doing Brexit badly — a higher proportion than ever.
The pro-Brexit Sun tabloid published an editorial this month wondering aloud where all this is going. “There is a worrying sense of drift in Downing Street,” the paper wrote, suggesting that May is doing little more than managing to “cling on.”
Bloomberg observed: “A pattern is emerging in the politics of Brexit Britain: a crisis, then a vague compromise that keeps all sides happy. The compromise is soon revealed to be an unsustainable fudge.”
Priti Patel, a Tory member of Parliament who was pushed from her ministerial post for freelancing her own foreign policy in Israel, criticized May’s leadership, tweeting: “These political games have serious consequences. . . . The Government should have shown the leadership required to deliver for Britain, rather than being bogged down in factionalism.”
This month, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s remarks at a dinner speech asserting that Trump would be better at Brexit than May were leaked — as he probably could have imagined they would be in a ballroom filled with mobile phones.
“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Johnson said. “Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard. . . . There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
If the Conservative Party is divided — May voted to remain in the E.U. — so is the opposition Labour Party.
Negotiations have been slow in Brussels, but there has been progress — most to the E.U.’s advantage.
May agreed to a $50 billion “divorce bill” and pledged that during the transition period, Britain would abide by all E.U. laws on trade and free movement of European citizens.
Europe’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has warned that “the most difficult part is still to come.”
“The UK will be automatically withdrawing from 750 international agreements, Euratom, Europol, the European Defense Agency and trade agreements” on Brexit day, he said, ready or not.
The Europeans remain mostly united.
Britain cannot get out of the union smoothly without settling the issue of the border between Ireland (a member of the E.U.) and Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom).
Barnier told reporters that Britain can remain in both the E.U. Customs Union and the Single Market, if May wants, but this would block Britain from independently negotiating its own bilateral trade deals and controlling European immigration into Britain — two red lines drawn by May but topics that are likely to be debated again in Parliament and on the airwaves, regardless of whether Britons are sick of it.