A dilemma — for individuals as well as nations — is having to choose between impossible alternatives. When it became clear that her country would not be able to leave the EU by the 29 March deadline, British Prime Minister Theresa May found herself in just such a position with choices running out, because to leave without a deal would be either impossible or so costly that it would be preferable not to.
Yet, the real British dilemma is deeper. It is the total inability to take a decision. This is not an assessment made by some political analyst or observer. It is the very essence of the process set in motion when former prime minister James Cameron decided to bring the question of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to a referendum.
The result is the complete division of the British people, not just politically, but also emotionally, psychologically and in terms of sense of national affiliation.
Cameron resigned because he had sided with the Remain camp. The only solution to the division in the Conservative Party proved to be Theresa May who had voted to remain yet was willing to assume the helm of the Brexit process.
Theresa May was the prime minister who believed in a “Great” Britain that stands atop mountains of traditions, precedents and political wisdom accumulated over centuries.
She also believed that the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the EU and its structures, was precise in how it ordered the process should a signatory decide to pull out of the union, and that Article 50 was there to make sure that the welfare of all sides would be observed since all their interests would be affected for better or for worse from a separation after unity and integration.
It is worth pointing out, as a historical footnote, that Brexit is not the first process of its kind. In 1982, before the EU was fully formed, Greenland voted to withdraw from the community after it obtained its independence from Denmark which, together with Ireland and Britain, had joined the EU’s precursor, the European Economic Community, in 1973.
Contrary to what May believed, British history did not contain the traditions and precedents that would help her steer her country out of the EU with the fewest possible losses and best possible gains.
Nor were the EU’s rules and interwoven relationships that had developed over recent decades things that could be severed so easily.
If the EU is the largest political engineering process in history, set in motion in order to make it impossible for European nations to so much as contemplate going to war against each other again, then leaving it was probably not supposed to be easy.
Some very difficult reverse engineering along with some tough and intricate negotiations would be required to safeguard the complicated weave of interests of the members, which eventually grew to 28. Averting shock and disruption could only be accomplished through a “soft” exit that keeps many of these interests and their arrangements intact.
The most complicated of these arrangements is the border between the EU and UK in Northern Ireland, which is at once part of the UK and part of the Irish island.
But this is not what Brexiters had in mind, especially those who have no objection to leaving the EU without any agreement at all. For Theresa May the cost of that would be unsustainable, not just because she still saw a future for British-EU relations but also because Scotland and Northern Ireland would revolt against a dangerous “hard” exit.
To complicate matters further, the House of Commons has departed from the long-established “Anglo Saxon” tradition of the two-party system. Unlike with other issues, one cannot speak of “Labour” versus “Conservatives” when it comes to Brexit.
Both of these major parties now have their own sub-parties of “remainers” and “leavers.” Still, the House as a whole turned down the “deal” that May struck with the EU, and by large majorities.
Curiously, parliament did not take May’s defeat to the next logical step which would be to withdraw confidence from her government. On the contrary, it voted to keep it. MPs were not ready for new elections.
Meanwhile, the gap between the pro-remain and the pro-leave camps remained unbridgeable. The only alternative was to ask for a three-month extension to the deadline which begged the question as to what could be accomplished in the next three months that could not be accomplished in the preceding three months.
Anti-Brexiters want a new referendum, arguing that now the British people are more aware of the costs of leaving than they had been at the time of the first referendum.
Pro-Brexiters, including Theresa May, argue that this would constitute an insult to British democracy and, indeed, a threat to its future, as a new referendum bringing a different result would merely pave the way to the hell of endless referendums.
Perhaps herein resides the “original sin” in the whole affair. The basic lesson that Britain has taught the world about democracy is founded on centuries of maturation of the concept of “representation” whereby it is not the people, themselves, who vote directly on the issues but their representatives who are tasked with deliberating the issues rationally and in the interests of the national weal.
Brexit has shown that turning to “the masses” and “the people” to settle things, opens the doors to national chauvinisms, populist currents and political demagoguery that, under conditions of conflicting political weights of relatively equal strength, propel towards dead ends and the inability to take decisions.
The second lesson, here, is that a structure that began with the Treaty of Paris (1951) establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was followed by the Treaty of Rome and the Euratom Treaty (1957) which established the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC), and that eventually led to the Maastricht Treaty and its amendments in Amsterdam (1999), Nice (2003) and Lisbon (2009) evolved into such a complex edifice that would be difficult to break free of, even for countries gripped by the most ultranationalist currents and in which the sense of European identity is too low to summon the ability to lend moral support to other European countries at different stages of political, economic and social maturity.
The third lesson that the European experience has to offer is that it is inseparable from the “globalisation” experience as a whole and the liberal traditions that informed it.
Perhaps the most important reason for this is the migration and refugee movement from Africa and the Middle East and, in tandem, the movement of world crises into the heart of Europe. Brexit is a reflection of this.
In all events, the world is not going to stop and wait until the UK solves its dilemma and Theresa May works her way out of her predicament. Developments keep coming from the US under Donald Trump, from Russia under Vladimir Putin and from China under Xi Jinping.
The latter is steadily turning the world into a tri-polar order while Europe is being deprived of an opportunity to become a fourth pole in the world order.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Europe’s British dilemma