PARIS – Little more than three months after the United Kingdom’s decision in June to leave the European Union, Brexit politics are careening out of control in the UK. An almost revolutionary – and very un-British – dynamic has taken hold, and, as British Prime Minister Theresa May indicated in her “Little Englander” speech at the Conservative Party conference this month, the UK is heading for a “hard Brexit.”
That outcome would run counter to British public opinion, which remains moderate on the question of fully breaking with the EU. According to a July BBC/ComRes poll, 66% of respondents considered “maintaining access to the single market” to be more important than restricting freedom of movement. In an ICM poll the same month, only 10% of respondents said they would prioritize ending free movement over maintaining access to the single market, while 30% viewed the two as equally important and 38% considered maintaining full access to the single market the priority.
These findings will surprise only those who buy into the narrative that the West is confronting a large-scale xenophobic revolt against the elites. While the “Leave” camp certainly included many hard Brexiteers whose primary motivation was to end free movement, it also comprised people who believed Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and current foreign secretary, when he promised (as he still does) that the UK could have its cake and eat it.
In fact, despite Leave’s large faction of angry white working-class voters, middle-class trade-friendly Brexiteers, together with the “Remain” camp, constitute a clear majority of everyone who voted in the June referendum. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the government’s policy to reflect the majority’s preference, and to aim for a “soft Brexit.” Instead, a classic revolutionary pattern has emerged.
According to the Brexiteers, the people have spoken, and it is the government’s duty to deliver a “true” Brexit. But the government must overcome the spoilers, such as senior civil servants and the Remain majority in the House of Commons, who favor a Brexit in name only – a “false” version that could never deliver the benefits of the real thing.
In this revolutionary narrative, the worst elements of Europe’s political tradition have crowded out British pragmatism. What a majority of British voters want is considered irrelevant. With a hard Brexit, the Leave camp can avoid being seen by voters as the supplicant in negotiations with the EU – which it inevitably would be, no matter how often May denies it.
The EU will have the upper hand in negotiations for two simple reasons. First, the UK has more to lose economically. While other EU countries’ total exports to the UK are double what the UK exports to the rest of the bloc, its exports to the EU amount to three times more as a share of its GDP. Likewise, the UK has a services surplus, which matters far less to the rest of the EU than it does to Britain.
Second, just like the EU’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, any negotiated arrangement between the EU and the UK will have to be unanimously accepted by all EU member states. Thus, the negotiation will not really be between the UK and the EU, but rather among EU members. The UK, without a presence at those talks, will simply have to accept or reject whatever the EU offers. This would be true even if the UK pursued a prepackaged arrangement such as membership in the European Economic Area or the EU Customs Union; it will be all the more true if the UK seeks a “bespoke” deal, as May has indicated she will.
If British voters recognized their country’s weak negotiating position, the Brexiteers, who won the referendum on their promise to “take back control,” would face a political disaster. Walking away from substantive negotiations is the simplest way to avoid such an embarrassing unmasking.
Thus, politically, a hard Brexit is actually the soft option for the government. Economically, however, hard Brexit will come at a high price, which the UK will have to pay for years to come.
The only consolation is that Brexit’s revolutionary momentum may not be sustainable. Shortly after the Leave camp labeled bureaucrats in her Her Majesty’s Civil Service “enemies of the people” – a typical statement in the early stages of a revolution – pro-Brexit Foreign Trade Minister Liam Fox derided British exporters, calling them “too lazy and too fat” to succeed in his brave new free-trading Britain.
Such rhetoric is a symptom of desperation. It carries echoes of the declining years of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, when Marxist apologists insisted that there was nothing wrong with communism, except that humanity wasn’t yet mature enough for it. If developments continue at this pace, the revolutionary zeal we see among British politicians may burn itself out before “hard Brexit” is consummated.