Among the leaders of the democratic nations, there is hardly anyone who is less envied than current British Prime Minister Theresa May. May, who survived a vote of no-confidence in the UK parliament on 16 January, has been on a rollercoaster as she attempts to persuade the UK parliament to accept her controversial plan for the country to exit the European Union in the so-called Brexit.
The British nation is still torn by the self-inflicted damage caused by the vote to exit the European Union in June 2016. Ever since that date, a political and social civil war has been raging over the results of the referendum that placed the British nation into unexpected rounds of chaos and counter-chaos over what to do next.
The latest episode saw the British parliament refusing the deal negotiated between the government led by May and the European Union, which would have meant the UK’s exiting the EU by 29 March. But the devil was in the details, and terms that were acceptable to the European Union and accepted by the British negotiators were nowhere near acceptable to the British parliament. May suffered a historic defeat in the House of Commons after losing by 432 votes to 202, which meant that even her own party’s MPs refused the plan.
May is now in an uphill battle to get her plan approved by parliament as the clock is ticking and the danger of reaching no deal leaves the British nation stranded in the middle of the road. It seems that the UK will no longer be a member of the EU with all its political and economic perks, but neither will it manage to administer its affairs freely as an independent state as promised by the Brexiteers.
Simultaneously, there have been calls to annul the results of the referendum by the Remain camp and to organise a new referendum. The calls have attracted some of the former Brexiteers, who believe they have been fooled by the rosy promises of the Brexit camp and the exaggerated benefits of leaving the European Union.
However, even with celebrity voices endorsing such an act, including politicians such as former prime minister Tony Blair, the ramifications of annulling a democratically voted referendum could be equally destructive to the British nation. The reason is that it would be an unprecedented step to ignore the results of a democratic process, and it could open a Pandora’s Box of troubles and possibly civic unrest. Moreover, it is believed that it could set a precedent for others to follow should the results of an election or referendum not be accepted by a significant proportion of the population. This would damage the democratic process in one of the world’s oldest democracies.
Europe remains Britain’s chief export market, as it has for the past 46 years. Moreover, London, which has a reputation as the number one financial centre in the world, has built this from its connection to the European Union. It is unknown how far Brexit will affect that position for London and the United Kingdom as a whole. However, the signs are not promising, with more European and international corporates moving their businesses from the UK to other European countries.
This has included Airbus, which employs about 14,000 people in the UK along with the 100,000 jobs it supports. Even a Brexit advocate such as businessman James Dyson has taken the decision to move his company’s headquarters to Singapore, dealing a major blow to the Brexit camp and sparking further anger. Part of that anger was also about the UK’s bill to the EU, amounting to 40 billion GB pounds and called the “EU divorce bill.”
On the other hand, there have been other calls for setting up a parallel referendum on the results of the EU negotiations, and this could be a form of democratic backdoor to reset the entire process. However, even if this is possible, it remains questionable whether it will have an effect on the matter as the deadline for Brexit has already been set. Accordingly, the window is closing for any possible changes in that direction, given the short amount of time.
That said, Article 50 of the European Constitution, on which the entire process of Brexit is based, gives the British leeway to backtrack on a full Brexit. However, May is not keen on such a move, and the Brexiteers who voted for leaving the EU will feel betrayed in the same way as if she had invoked Britain’s right to revoke Article 50 that initiated the first step towards Brexit.
Britain has hardly been in a more complicated political situation in its modern history. The brunt of the Brexit process is heavily felt within the four corners of the kingdom, as Britain has been a member of what is now the EU since the early 1970s and has helped through decades of negotiations to formulate it in its current form. The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989 led to the entry of the former Soviet-bloc countries in Eastern Europe to the EU. From there stems the irony that the country that blazed the trail in forming this economic and political union along with other Western European countries such as France and Germany is now blazing the trail for its disintegration.
May is much less powerful than she was before the parliamentary vote rejecting the results of the negotiations, and she barely survived a vote of no-confidence tabled by opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. However, this does not mean she is safe or that she has found her comfort zone because the days ahead will prove even harder if no deal is reached, signalling domestic and international chaos on all levels.
May has to come up with a Plan B and have it approved by parliament before the deadline at the end of March. She may also be forced to issue a request for extending that deadline from the EU in order to avoid no deal, especially with contentious issues such as the Irish-British border and tariffs not having been resolved. Furthermore, the narrative about the perks of Brexit has been toned down within the UK, and there has been less reference to promises of rivers of milk and honey once the exit from the “wretched” union is achieved.
The UK is in unchartered waters concerning the political and economic future of the country. No competent leader has surfaced to steer it to safety out of these unchartered waters. May has tried and thus far failed to be such a leader, and whether or not she decides to step down is less important than who will replace her if she does.
The weeks leading up to 29 March will thus prove critical in the modern history of the UK and the rest of Europe.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Un-Brexiting the Brexit?