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The Muddle of the Middle

How the endless negotiations to leave the European Union have paralyzed Great Britain’s governing class

WPA Pool/Getty Images

They say that there are decades where nothing happens; and weeks where decades happen; but sometimes there are 18 months where so much and so little happens that it is hard to tell whether events are static or in constant flux. This is the strange impasse at the heart of British politics today: a stalemate that manifests itself as chaos, a historic decision that has brought Britain to a dreary standstill, ever since the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016.

Following feverish last-minute talks between U.K. and European Union leaders last week, the EU seems set to accept that Brexit negotiations can finally move onto their second phase, two months later than planned. The first phase consisted of establishing basic principles of Britain’s departure—above all, regarding Britain’s financial settlement (dubbed the “divorce bill”), the rights of EU citizens already living in Britain, and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The second phase will address a future U.K.-EU relationship—a far greater challenge, all agree, when fantasy will hit the reality of a fixed, inferior trade deal. “We all know that breaking up is hard,” European Council President Donald Tusk warned. “But breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder.”

That’s not to say phase one was easy. The Irish border posed a particularly acute problem. If Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, as is Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan, a hard border will have to be reinstated between North and South, not only bringing back memories and tensions of the Troubles, but also negating Britain’s commitments to Ireland in older treaties. The solution the U.K. eventually settled on was to delay the decision. “In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union,” the 15-page document states in paragraph 49.

As ever, then, the certainty that Britain will leave the EU belies the utter uncertainty surrounding what that leaving will look like. During the referendum campaign, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, and even Australia were cited as examples Britain could emulate in different ways. Now Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has stated that, based on Britain’s priorities, Canada is the only realistic model, although comparisons have also been drawn with Ukraine’s and Turkey’s relationships with the EU (not what Brexiteers had in mind). Canada’s arrangement would certainly satisfy those who see nothing more exciting than brokering new free-trade deals around the world. But it would also restrict trade-access around services—a sector that accounts for almost 80 percent of the U.K.’s GDP and 40 percent of its exports. “What we want is a bespoke outcome,” David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, explained on Sunday. “We’ll probably start with the best of Canada, the best of Japan, and the best of South Korea, and then add to that the bits that are missing, which is services. Canada plus plus plus would be one way of putting it.”

Brussels finds these fantasies of a pick-and-mix relationship frustrating. “Not everyone has yet well understood that there are points that are non-negotiable for the EU,” Barnier sighed. But whatever path the U.K. eventually chooses, the prospects for the national economy look bleak. On Tuesday, earlier this week, the Rand Corporation published a report that concluded that almost all possible trading relationships between the EU and the U.K. after Brexit will leave Britain worse off. The report adds that it may not be until 2031 before any of the potentially dynamic effects from leaving the EU are seen. During the referendum, the Leave campaign calculated that an extra £300 would be saved by the average U.K. household per year, once the U.K. stopped paying into the EU budget. Last month, a study by the London School of Economics found that the average household will already be paying at least an extra £400 in shopping annually, due to Brexit-induced inflation. Since that study, inflation has only gone up, reaching a near six-year high for November.

But for most Brexit-believers, the problem will never be Brexit, only ever that Brexit was carried out wrong. To this end, the morning after phase one was completed, the range of responses on the front pages of the newspapers was vast and revealing. “REJOICE!” cheered the Daily Mail on December 8, “WE’RE ON OUR WAY!” The Daily Telegraph adopted the stoic language of sacrifice, calling May’s compromise “The price of freedom.” The Daily Mirror was less impressed, labelling May “Mrs SOFTEE” and lamenting both the proposed cost of the divorce bill—at least £39 billion, but likely much more—and the revived possibility that Britain could stay in the single market (a so-called “soft Brexit”). The next day, the Sunday edition of the same newspaper could have come from a parallel universe: “After May’s triumph in Brussels, we’ve got the EU over the barrel,” the Sunday Mirror sang. (The story was apparently an “exclusive.”)

Parallel universes are standard fare in Brexit Britain. The reactions from leading Brexiteers—who see any expert criticism as a conspiracy—were no less varied. While many in May’s cabinet, including key figures in the Leave campaign like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, made public displays of loyalty and praise, outside the party views were more hostile. The current leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) said May had “surrendered.” Aaron Banks, founder of the Leave.EU movement (and currently under investigation by the Electoral Commission), declared that “Theresa May has betrayed the country and the 17.4 million Leave voters.” The prospect of staying in the single market was beyond the pale: “Full regulatory alignment with the internal market and customs union? We may as well just bend over,” Banks said. Nigel Farage, perhaps Brexit’s most prominent cheerleader, felt similarly. He called the agreement a “humiliation” and a “capitulation”: “This isn’t what 17.4 million people voted for.”

Farage is right: This isn’t what 17.4 million people voted for. None of this is. The question posed in the referendum on June 26, 18 months ago, stated simply: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Voters could then tick one of two boxes: “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union.” The former meant the status quo; the latter was whatever you wanted it to be: Norway, Switzerland, Canada plus plus plus. Surprise, surprise, the status quo didn’t win.

The toxic simplicity of the referendum question is still with us, begetting a situation where everyone wants something else, even—or especially—those who want the same thing: Brexit. Appeasing all the different desires is an especially hard task as Brexit’s fault lines cut across traditional party lines, forcing parties and politicians to hold multiple, incompatible positions simultaneously. Hence May’s empty aphorisms: “Brexit means Brexit” and “No deal is better than a bad deal.” And thus the latest addition to her collection: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” A common line in many treaties, in Britain it serves a specific purpose, postponing the anger of disappointed dreams. If “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” then nothing can be criticized until the final moment—because nothing has actually happened.

This is Brexit at its best: a world where everything is possible but nothing takes place. For the Brexit-brigade, the longer this liminal space exists the better. So after finally securing the “hard-won” arrangement of phase one, Davis, the Brexit secretary, then appeared on television to insist that it was “much more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing.” Government aides were also quoted in newspapers as telling Johnson and Gove that any agreement so far was “meaningless” and “not binding,” with “full alignment … not meaning anything in EU law.” Reading these reports, politicians in Ireland were furious: “Both Ireland and the EU will be holding the U.K. to the phase one agreement,” an official statement declared. Davis then claimed that he had been misunderstood: “Of course it’s legally enforceable … It’s more than legally enforceable.” EU officials and diplomats were equally dismayed by Davis’s remarks. “It’s not helpful if people cast everything into doubt 24 hours later,” one EU source said. But for the Conservative Party it is very helpful, even essential, to navigating this impossible, self-immolating challenge.

For now, however, the specter of Europe is haunting Britain, capturing all its attention and casting any other concern—and common sense—into the shadows. Most of Britain’s social problems precede Brexit, compounded by the Conservative Party’s enduring commitment to austerity. As Brexit becomes more and more demanding, however, these problems will only recede further from public view, growing worse as a result. On December 3, all four members of the Social Mobility Commission resigned in protest of the government’s failure to address stagnant life prospects across the country. The team was empowered by May at the beginning of her prime-ministership with her promise to focus on the “everyday injustices that ordinary working class families feel.” Now the commissioners have quit en masse because the government, they allege, does not have the “necessary bandwidth” to tackle other issues. A few weeks earlier, the commission had released its annual “State of the Nation” report, which found, among other depressing facts, that five out of six people in low-pay work in 2006 were still in the same work a decade later.

Brexit would be a hard enough task at the best of times—but then Brexit probably wouldn’t have happened at the best of times. It would be foolish to separate Britain’s dire domestic failures from the vote to leave the EU. What becomes clearer with every week is that it would be equally foolish to think that leaving will fix them.