In the June 23, 2016 referendum, UK voters were asked a deceptively simple ‘in’ or ‘out’ question and by a narrow margin decided that the country should ‘leave’ the EU. A year later, however, the UK is still an EU member. Although, in principle, Brexit should finally take place on March 29, 2019, there is a great deal of uncertainty whether such a deadline can be met – indeed, there is uncertainty not only about when but also about how or even whether Brexit would take place. Brexit may not mean Brexit after all!
The UK, having decided to ‘leave’ the EU, appears to be doing its best to thwart the process. Having taken nine months to trigger article 50, Prime Minister Theresa May, shortly afterwards, announced a snap general election with the declared aim of achieving a ‘strong and stable’ government but got instead a hung parliament. It is as if the UK is mysteriously prevented from leaving the EU by some extraordinary, self-inflicted and largely avoidable obstacles and hurdles. Many outside observers find the current Brexit saga rather comical. Even ‘surreal’.
In Luis Bunuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, the affluent guests at a dinner party in a luxurious mansion discover that for some inexplicable reason they are unable to leave. The UK appears to be in a similar ‘surreal’ position whose origins can be traced back to that referendum which was ill-conceived and badly executed. It was ill-conceived because there was no overwhelming popular demand for a referendum on continued EU membership in 2015. The referendum was conceived by David Cameron as a means of dealing with the Conservative Party’s perennial internal difficulties with its Eurosceptic wing. The plan ultimately backfired resulting in a personal disaster for Cameron and a disaster for the UK national interest culminating in the current ‘surreal’ Brexit impasse.
The referendum was not only unnecessary and self-serving, but also badly executed. There were at least two very serious short-comings. First, the idea that a national decision of such momentous significance could be settled by a simple majority vote. Significant constitutional changes must surely require majorities much greater than one! Second, the expectation that a simple ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ question on the ballot paper was sufficient to provide clear guidance. Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty was hardly mentioned during the referendum campaign, nor was there any serious debate of its many complex legal and political implications. A ‘negotiated exit’ under article 50 means that in principle the UK can ‘leave’ the EU in a ‘soft’, ‘hard’ or even in a ‘cliff-edge’ manner whereby it simply walks away without any exit settlement. All these are possible ways of ‘leaving’ the EU with radically different consequences, but they were not on the ballot paper on June 23, 2016.
It seems that the UK, having had an unnecessary referendum that produced a result now subject to conflicting interpretations, is now in a Bunuel-like nightmarish state of wanting to ‘leave’ but unable to decide when, how or even whether. Nobody, including the British, appears to know these days what the British want from Brexit. In the film, there is no obvious explanation as to why the guests do not leave the party. In fact, Bunuel begins his ‘surrealist’ masterpiece by stating that the best explanation is that, from the ‘standpoint of pure reason’, there is no explanation. Could not the same be said about the current ‘surreal’ state of the Brexit negotiations?
In the film, mystified and confused about their inability to ‘leave’, the guests become mean and resentful and turn on each other, revealing some of the worst aspects of human nature. British society will hopefully not follow suit or become increasingly fractious and damagingly polarised because of that unnecessary and flawed referendum. Following May’s failure to obtain a clear popular endorsement for her ‘hard’ Brexit strategy in the snap general election, voices, including those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, demanding a ‘softer’ Brexit are becoming increasingly louder. Neither a ‘soft’ nor a ‘hard’ Brexit, however, would heal the sharp divisions created by the 2016 referendum; a ‘gradual’ Brexit may stand a better chance.
A ‘gradual’ Brexit means that the decision to exit the EU is taken in stages. In the first stage, the UK leaves the EU on March 29, 2019 but remains, for a short transitional period, an EEA member.
This ‘worst of both worlds’ solution of course does not address immediately the thorny issues of ‘uncontrolled’ immigration, contributions to the EU budget and the jurisdiction of the ECJ; but it provides, for a short period, some breathing space and reduces uncertainty while negotiations for a trade deal continue. A ‘gradual’ decision about Brexit removes the risks of a ‘cliff-edge’ end to the negotiations and allows time for further reflection and room for compromise in a bitterly divided nation. As people absorb and digest the full picture of Brexit they can still democratically decide to change course one way or another. This could be either to proceed with a ‘hard’ Brexit by leaving the EEA or remain in the EEA but outside the EU or even revert to full EU membership.
Moreover, during this transition period, the EU itself might introduce reforms, especially on the issue of free movement of people, which may remove one of the principal anti-EU objections by ‘hard’ Brexiteers. Once the reversibility of triggering article 50 is formally established the attractiveness of gradualism is enhanced and it should be seriously considered. Before the UK general election this option could have been viewed as wishful thinking on the part of ‘remainers’. The odds for a ‘gradual’ Brexit, however, may have shortened after the general election result.