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Brexit Identities

Bad politics is more the rule than the exception around the world, so it should come as no surprise that the United Kingdom, where parliamentary democracy was born, is not immune. What is surprising is that the UK's withdrawal from the European Union should be the reef on which its political elite is crashing.

LONDON – Having just moved to London from Latin America, I recently told British dinner companions that the local politics – with its grandstanding politicians, overheated rhetoric, rampant populism, and leaders who put party over country – makes me feel right at home. Their obvious discomfort suggested that I should not repeat the joke. 

But I was only half kidding. After all, bad politics is more the rule than the exception around the world. Not even the country that invented parliamentary democracy can be expected to be immune. What is surprising – at least to a newcomer – is that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union should be the cause of all this trouble.

Consider some of the options heatedly debated recently in the House of Commons: customs union, Common Market 2.0 (also known as “Norway-plus”), and a Canada-style free-trade agreement. International trade wonks know that there are substantive differences among these alternatives. But how many MPs knew six months ago the difference between a customs union and a free-trade agreement? Was that subtle distinction a good reason to lead the country into political anarchy? Would ongoing compliance with EU rules really turn the UK into a “vassal state,” as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson likes to claim?

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