Brexit voters' remorse
Everybody in British politics had been talking about the probable consequences of a vote to leave the European Union for months, but they are nevertheless all in shock now that that they face the reality of Brexit. The level of voters' remorse is so high that a re-run of the referendum today would probably produce the opposite result. But it is hard to imagine how such a thing could be justified. (Best two out of three referendums?)
The remorse has been driven by the collapse of the pound, panic in the markets, and other consequences of a “Leave” vote that the Brexit campaign had promised would not happen. Moreover, leaders of the “Leave” campaign like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith are rapidly walking away from the inflated or simply untrue claims that they made during the campaign.
They have all renounced their promise that Britain would save half a billion dollars a week in contributions to the EU if it left. They now admit that Britain could not prevent free movement of EU citizens into Britain if it wants to have continued access to the EU's “single market. “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again,” admitted Leave campaigner and former Conservative cabinet minister Liam Fox.
It is also now clear that the EU will not be generous and patient in negotiating the British departure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the EU would not tolerate British “cherry-picking” when negotiations on subjects like trade and the free movement of people finally begin. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not,” she said.
The Brexit leaders had no plan for what to do after winning the referendum, probably because they didn't really expect to win it. And their nightmare deepened when Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who had called the referendum in the belief that Brexit would be rejected, took his revenge on the leading Brexiteers.
Announcing his resignation, Cameron promised to stay in office until October to give the Conservative Party time to find a new leader. And during that time, contrary to his previous statements, he would not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.
Article 50 is the trigger that would start the irrevocable process of negotiating Britain's exit from the EU. By not pulling it for months, Cameron is allowing time for the painful consequences of leaving the EU to mount up and become horribly clear. Then the new prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, probably Boris Johnson, will have the honor of pulling the trigger and taking the blame for making that pain permanent.
So it's hardly surprising that Johnson, despite having pulled off the most remarkable coup in British politics for decades, was looking distinctly glum on the Morning After the Night Before. He looks and behaves like a well-bred British version of Donald Trump, but his “dumb blond” act is just a facade. His political future has been sabotaged, and he knows it.
But will all this fear and remorse really lead to some sort of turn-around in the exit process? Left to stew in its own juices for six months, British politics might eventually come up with a typically muddled compromise that postponed the final break with the EU indefinitely – but it isn't going to have six months.
There has been great impatience with British behaviour in the other EU countries for many years. Britain has always been the odd man out, demanding exemptions from various rules and agreements, rebates on budgetary contributions, special treatment of every sort. And now that it has “decided” to leave (sort of), it's playing the same old game, asking everybody else to wait while it deals with its domestic political problems.
“The European Union as a whole has been taken as a hostage by an internal party fight of the Tories (the British Conservatives),” said Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament. “And I'm not satisfied today to hear that (Cameron) wants to step down only in October and once more everything is put on hold until the Tories have decided about the next prime minister.”
To make matters worse the opposition Labour Party is also descending into chaos, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a revolt over his half-hearted support for the “Remain” campaign, which may have been the main reason for Brexit's narrow victory. (Half the Labour Party's traditional supporters didn't even know that their own party supported staying in the EU.) Both major British political parties, for the moment, are essentially leaderless.
British politics is a train-wreck, unable and unwilling to respond to EU demands for rapid action, but the EU cannot afford to wait five or six months for the exit negotiations to begin. The markets need certainty about the future if they are not to go into meltdown, and one way or another the EU's leaders will try to provide it. It is going to be a very ugly divorce.*
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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