Boris Johnson has been chosen as the United Kingdom’s next prime minister – a role in which he’ll be responsible for navigating the country through the Brexit quagmire. Since the 2016 referendum, British politicians and bureaucrats have come and gone, but each has essentially followed in the footsteps of those who came before. The result has been unsatisfactory, to say the least. Like all politicians, Johnson lives in a trap; reality defines what he must do. It will limit him and drive him. So, while a new personality on the scene is interesting, he is far less important than the forces acting around him. Rather than raising the question of what Boris Johnson will do, we need to understand the origins of the paralysis.
How We Got Here
Former Prime Minister David Cameron was compelled to call the Brexit referendum by his own reality: His opponents were getting stronger and had to be appeased, and supporters of the EU were confident that they would win. When they lost, “remain” advocates heaped contempt on “leave” voters and set about trying to find ways to nullify the election without seeming to be anti-democratic. They’ve failed to pull it off.
There were two reasons the remain vote lost. First, while EU backers have benefited greatly from the U.K.’s membership in the body, others have not. The EU’s multilateral free trade has devastated some British industries, and those who lost their jobs are bitter. Proponents of the EU thought that these people ought to take the long view – but a 50-year-old worker whose industry has disappeared lacks that kind of patience.
Second, euroskeptics took issue with what they saw as a loss of the U.K.’s sovereignty. The real issue here was Europe’s insistence on immigration. Those immigrating to the U.K. were largely poor, and they moved into neighborhoods already inhabited by poor British people. Those in the U.K. who supported immigration as a moral imperative were not the ones who would be living on the same block as these new immigrants – rather, it would be Britain’s poor and working-class. EU and British internationalists were writing moral checks that those already under tremendous economic and social pressure would have to pay for. And when those working-class voters opted to depart the EU, they were accused of xenophobia, only hardening their anti-EU position.
This imposed upon a deeply divided country a division that no politician could bridge. The EU sought to take advantage of this divide. It responded with profound inflexibility, hoping to destabilize the British government and force it to reconsider Brexit.
A Thorny Divorce
The dissolution of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism has been described as the “Velvet Divorce.” The Slovaks wanted an independent state. In other countries, there may have been a civil war, but the Czechs chose instead to do everything they could to accommodate the Slovaks, realizing there was little to gain by refusing division and much to gain by avoiding long-term conflict and bitterness.
The Brexit divorce is far from velvet. Prior to the referendum, Brussels warned Britain that its departure would hurt the U.K. – and the EU is not afraid of allowing the U.K. to sustain damage during the Brexit process – hoping its warnings would bolster opposition to Brexit. But less discussed was the potential harm to the rest of Europe. In this divorce, only one side was going to suffer, and that was Britain.
The EU certainly wanted to shape British public opinion, but there were other reasons for this strategy. Brussels is caught in uneasy relations with Italy, Poland and Hungary. In each case, the EU has threatened to impose disciplinary measures if the member states step too far out of line. But the truth is that the EU is terrified that its members might decide they are better off leaving. If the U.K. was seen as getting off easy, others could soon follow. The EU therefore had to act as if the rest of the bloc would be totally unharmed by the departure of the body’s second-largest economy. And this forced Brussels into an utterly inflexible position, driven by the knowledge that the EU could not afford a Brexit that did not inflict serious consequences on the U.K.
The European Union is trying to make the Brexit divorce as thorny as possible for the United Kingdom. But what Brussels could not grasp is that the process has driven the British political system not to capitulation, but to Boris Johnson. In trying to strengthen Britain’s anti-Brexit faction, the EU has instead helped catapult to power a man who lives for calling Brussels’ bluff.
The EU is under mounting internal pressure, Scotland is muttering about independence, and Ireland is ill at ease – revealing just how much the two sides need to reach a conclusion to the Brexit saga. But Brussels has no room to maneuver, and Johnson has no desire to maneuver. The EU’s inability to deliver a velvet divorce has now put it in a position where attempting one would be politically devastating, and the institution’s credibility is at stake. The stage is set for a less-than-civil separation.