Historians will highlight the supreme irony. In joining the European Union, the United Kingdom was a supplicant, twice vetoed by France’s General Charles de Gaulle. In leaving, the UK again becomes supplicant. On April 10, the EU forced the UK to remain a member until 31 October – despite British Prime Minister Theresa May begging her EU peers not to prolong the agony. That the UK did not leave the EU earlier is largely due to those who most ardently wanted out. Conservative Party “Brexiteers”, wallowing in illusions about the UK’s global stature, see May’s deal as a sellout – unworthy of the Brexit name. Their illusions fly in the face of history.
In 1944, Winston Churchill paid an Armistice Day visit to de Gaulle in newly liberated Paris. The general advised Churchill that their two countries emerged from world war in an objectively similar state: despite vastly different national experiences between 1940 and 1944, both were middle-ranking ex-imperial states, financially exhausted and lacking clout in a world run by superpowers.
Britain and France, suggested de Gaulle, should team up to construct and lead a European bloc whose whole would be vastly more influential on the world stage than the sum of its parts. Churchill dismissed his host’s analysis, insisting that the UK was still a major global force. He saw his country as lying at the epicenter of three overlapping circles – empire, Atlantic and Europe. More than seven decades later, that illusion lingers in the fantasy chatter about “global Britain”. The general’s analysis was correct, and Churchill’s, not for the first time, was misguided.
De Gaulle went on to an act of unparalleled statesmanship, embracing Germany’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in a historic transcendence of Europe’s centuries-old civil war. The Franco-German motor has driven the EU to genuine unity in diversity. In 1973, Britain grudgingly entered what it called “the common market” as alternatives had proven deceptive. The Commonwealth was a largely symbolic anachronism, and the United States valued Britain primarily as a conduit to Europe. That reality has not changed. Yet in 2016, 36% of the UK electorate, those voting Brexit, failed to see that any alternative might prove worse than the status quo.
Most Britons have tended to know and care less about the European Union than other Europeans. For Britons, the EU remained little more than a market. No UK political leader, with the partial exception of Edward Heath, tried to make the positive case for Europe as a historic project. When making such a case became imperative in the context of David Cameron’s ill-judged 2016 referendum, Remain leaders simply did not know how. Instead, they resorted to “project fear”, warning of economic disaster. Alas, negation of black does not produce white.
A pundit compared Brexiteers to Basil Faulty in John Cleese’s comedy Faulty Towers: “a portrait of rage and frustration, an exploration of the impotence that results when the world as we wish it to be is so agonisingly at odds with the world as it is.” Britons never shall be slaves; foreigners are automatically suspect.
The situation seems untenable. May’s government, failing on three occasions to gain a parliamentary majority for its own deal, desperately tries to strike a bargain with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to find any compromise that might command a majority in the House of Commons. Many MPs, like many Britons, want to put Brexit behind. Yet any compromise would satisfy nobody and simply stores trouble for the years ahead. The most commonly touted solution in the May-Corbyn talks involves a customs union, which narrowly missed mustering a Commons majority during an indicative vote on 1 April. This arrangement – derided by Trade Secretary Liam Fox as “the worst of all worlds” by preventing the UK from striking trade agreements with third parties – would not satisfy the Brexiteers, who would strive to break free as soon as possible. Nor would it satisfy true Remainers who rightly point out that the UK would become rule-taker rather than rule-maker.
In short, there is no rational halfway point. In that sense, again ironically, May who argued “no deal is better than a bad deal” – although clearly she did not mean it – was correct. Either the UK remains full party to the EU adventure, influencing its course in meaningful ways and, as in any marriage, accepting the implications of “for better or for worse”. Or, the nation breaks with the EU, attempting to forge a solitary, perilous path in a world of big commercial and geopolitical beasts.
Brexit turmoil made this stark choice clear, exposing the lies and deceptions of Brexiteers in all their vacuity. That is why many see a second referendum – based on clearly articulated facts about the realities of leaving as now understood – to be the only viable solution. Recent polls suggest victory for Remain, but nobody knows for sure – the polls predicted the same outcome in 2016. The country is polarized, and the EU must question if a Remain victory is welcome.
Until recently, the UK’s 27 European partners genuinely wanted Britain to remain a full and active member. That changed as May’s nightmare revealed how the UK is hopelessly conflicted over Europe. The nation, long seen as an awkward partner, nevertheless contributed in constructive ways to the EU story, even while refusing to accept the whole package – with opt-outs from the single currency and the Schengen borderless zone. The Brexit saga forced a rethink among the 27. Does the EU really want to embrace a country constantly applying the brake, periodically agitating to leave? Different EU member states have different answers to that question.
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, known in House of Commons circles as “the honourable member for the 18th century,” tweeted: If Britons are forced to stay in the EU through 2019, accepting the humiliation of participation in EU parliamentary elections, this would give them “opportunity to veto the budget and to be really very difficult”. This threat of disruption prompted the EU to the extraordinary lengths of adding conditions to their imposed deadline extension. The UK, the April 10 European Council summit communiqué stipulated, must give a commitment to “facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives”. A review of the UK’s behavior will take place in June. Such caveats seem necessary in light of May’s potential replacement by a hard Brexiteer like Boris Johnson. Some refer to the caveats as “Boris-locks”, although many doubt these have legal weight.
One possible conclusion drawn from Brexit Agonistes: The UK’s contortions have had a knock-on effect on the priorities of other Eurosceptic parties. Across the continent, populist leaders who had for years advocated quitting the EU – Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, Jimmie Akeson’s Sweden Democrats – have ceased to make Exit a vocal plank in their platforms. On the other hand, as mainstream parties warn against a populist surge in the forthcoming European parliamentary elections, Brexit is just one front in Europe’s battle for its soul.
Since the end of World War II, Britons have avoided the existential question of who and what they are, variously viewing themselves as island nation, global commercial power, European partner and America’s foremost ally. They can no longer sit on these various fences.
Johnson recently invoked Moses imploring the EU, “Let my people go.” Perhaps this is the way forward for a nation in search of its true identity. A spell of isolation in the middle of the North Sea, mostly neglected by Europe and America and increasingly irrelevant to the Commonwealth, could bring the UK’s identity into line with its geography. And perhaps de Gaulle’s vision could still come true, with Britain reapplying for EU membership in 2040 and eventually proving to be the most constructive member state of all.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.