This Is What ‘Taking Back Control’ Looks Like
Brexiteers wanted the United Kingdom to control its own destiny. They got the opposite.
Over one thousand days after Britain voted to leave the European Union, this is not what Brexit was supposed to look like. Beyond hoping to win back 350 million pounds per week for the National Health Service, a number which proved to be fictitious, and bringing back hard borders to stifle the flow of refugees, whose threat had been grossly overstated, Brexiteers rallied around a refrain to “take back control.” Three years later, as the 27 remaining EU members set the agenda on Britain’s departure date and on the possibility of a no-deal exit—an event that would have immense consequences for everything from Britain’s business community to its higher education scene to its toilet paper supply—the notion of a Britain in control could not be further from the truth.
To some degree, Britain’s failure to take back control is simply a failure of its prime minister to gain control. Theresa May voluntarily squandered her Parliamentary majority with an ill-fated snap election in 2017 and since then has done little to court her party’s far-right flank and even less to court the 245 votes of the opposition. The two and a half years she has had to build a consensus or strike a compromise have largely gone to waste as members of Parliament move tonight to take control of Brexit, relieve the prime minister of her agenda-setting authority, and stage a series of “indicative votes” to show how Parliament thinks Brexit should proceed. What they are likely to find, however, as Zsolt Darvas, a senior fellow at the prominent Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told Foreign Policy in exasperation, is that “there’s no majority for anything!”
This weakness at home has created opportunity abroad, allowing the European Union to play hardball with the United Kingdom during the past few weeks by refusing to reopen the withdrawal agreement for further negotiation, rejecting May’s proposed extension to June, and declaring unilaterally that Britain will only receive a meaningful extension if Parliament supports the withdrawal agreement currently on the table. The rudderless House of Commons, in turn, has been in a constant state of cascading crises as the prime minister has been swept aside, cabinet ministers have resigned en masse, and coalitions have turned in on themselves amid the chaos of racing to meet the EU’s deadlines and demands.
The desultory prime minister, however, has not been the only one sending Britain’s sovereignty overseas. In the past few months, and increasingly in the past few weeks, a strange scene has played out with Brexiteers appealing to far-right leaders in the European Union to take Brexit out of British hands. Rather than taking back control as they so hoped to do, Brexiteers have actively sought to surrender it to foreign governments.
Last week, the Telegraph reported that a number of Conservatives had opened “covert talks” with the far-right governments of Hungary, Italy, and Poland to make use of their veto powers as EU member nations and block the prime minister’s request for an extension to Article 50, thereby producing a no-deal exit—which some Tories considered to be better than the currently proposed deal. The efforts taken by Tory MPs and activists to compel foreign governments to undermine their prime minister were remarkable. Three Tory MPs, including two former cabinet members, flew to Warsaw earlier this month to petition the nationalists of the Polish government’s Law and Justice party, who have been widely accused of eroding democratic norms and abridging the rule of law in their country, to disrupt the withdrawal process on behalf of Britain’s Euroskeptics, the Guardian reported.
At the same time, leaders of the Leave.EU campaign allegedly made their way to Veneto to entreat the anti-institutionalists of Lega, Matteo Salvini’s party of incendiary populists and Euroskeptics, to lay down a veto as well. Those covert efforts were matched with public goading from prominent Conservative MPs, including Daniel Kawczynski and European Research Group (ERG) chief Jacob Rees-Mogg, to break the fragile consensus of the EU 27 and force the U.K. out of the EU without a deal as early as this Friday. “If true, then Vive la France,” tweeted Rees-Mogg in response to reports that Macron had been considering a veto prior to a European Council summit last Thursday.
As Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, worked to prevent the EU’s position on Brexit from devolving into individual national interests, the personal appeals by Tory MPs and the online invitations for interference threatened to destabilize the Brexit process even further. Fortunately for Britain, those attempts have so far failed, and the conclusion of last week’s summit was an agreement between May and the EU 27 on an extension which would see the U.K. leave the EU on May 22 if Parliament supports the prime minister’s plan or on April 12, without a deal, if Parliament rejects the prime minister’s plan. All eyes now turn back to Parliament and the three-week deadline which the European Union has set for it. But with no meaningful changes to the deal they have now rejected twice, MPs are widely expected to reject it once more, thereby triggering a no-deal departure on April 12. At this point, only a last minute olive branch—a letter of resignation from the prime minister, which some of her ministers have asked for to support her deal, or a new and softer Brexit, which could win over Labour—can prevent a no-deal exit and all that it entails. Neither, however, appears likely.
Whether MPs cause the country to crash out or manage to avoid that fate, negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the future of the relationship will continue for at least the next two years. This second chapter of the Brexit saga, however, is not expected to proceed any better for the beleaguered British government. “In fact, I would expect the United Kingdom’s negotiating position to get even weaker going forward,” Thomas Sampson, a professor at the London School of Economics who has written extensively on Brexit, told Foreign Policy.
It has been difficult to remember in the long, drawn-out saga since Britain voted to leave the European Union that the fight over the withdrawal agreement—the terms and date of the U.K.’s departure—is only the very first stage of Brexit. What will follow the departure, be it on April 12 or May 22, are the more substantial talks on the future relationship, primarily with respect to the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital that collectively constitute the EU’s single market.
The nonnegotiable bundling of these four freedoms has already caused much agonizing in Britain. By the time of the referendum, the essential argument in favor of Brexit was cutting off the free movement of people, which had been portrayed as both an economic threat, given the influx of eastern European workers in the past two decades, and a security threat, given the possibility for Europe’s porous borders to be breached by terrorists. However, it has been difficult for the business-friendly Tory party to reconcile itself to the fact that ending the free movement of people will equally end access to the other aspects of the single market that have done so much to benefit Britain economically for the past two and a half decades.
For this reason, many Brexiteers have long offered a Goldilocks claim that they will use Britain’s economic and political might to retain complete access to Europe’s money and products without the burdens of its people. To be sure, this claim has been and continues to be false as the EU’s stance against it has been and continues to be resolute. And those facts have little reason to change. “The bargaining power of the EU is much stronger than the bargaining power of the U.K. for the simple reason that the EU is much bigger,” noted Darvas, the Bruegel fellow. “The EU is simply more important.”
To make matters worse, whatever leverage Britain does have will likely be drained by the Brexiteers’ dogmatic rejection of the free movement of people, a stubborn starting point that will restrict concessions the EU may make in return. Should these talks also begin during the national emergency of a no-deal exit, Britain’s bargaining position will be reduced even further. Crashing out on April 12 will see food and medicine, supplies with short shelf lives that come from Europe every day, held up at harbors as officials struggle to process the waves of imports that were once free and frictionless. Supplies shortages, price hikes, and panic are likely to follow. If it drags on, unemployment, financial volatility, and the beginnings of a deep recession are expected to come too. Stanching the bleeding and acquiescing to the EU will be a priority.
To be sure, in the event of a no-deal exit both the United Kingdom and the European Union will feel the consequences. The reintroduction of tariffs and border checks—costs and delays up and down the supply chain—will pose what Professor Sampson worries will be a “severe disruption” to commerce on both side of the Channel. However, the brunt of that cost, a “sharp and negative shock,” will be borne by the United Kingdom, Sampson said, “for the very simple reason that the UK is far more reliant on trade with the EU as a share of its GDP than the EU is on the UK.”
With the pound in free fall, prices rising, and supplies dwindling, the United Kingdom would undoubtedly be “negotiating from a position of weakness,” Sampson predicted. “If there is a no deal, everybody would be shocked,” Dravas added. “You would have a major shock to businesses and there would be extreme pressure and urgency to alleviate the negative implications.” In other words, on whatever principle Parliament ultimately rejected the EU’s deal, the U.K. would likely have to cave, and quickly, to whatever the EU was demanding.
Holding out and digging in, which appears to be the preferred style of Britain’s boisterous Brexiteers, is certainly an option. However, it’s not a very good one. One major point of contention in the event of a no-deal exit will likely be Britain’s refusal to pay the so-called Brexit bill, the 40 billion pound ($52 billion) divorce settlement the United Kingdom will owe the European Union to honor its budgetary commitments. Rees-Mogg and his allies in the ERG are prepared to fight it, but neither they nor Britain are prepared for the EU to fight back. The reality is that Britain has little leverage to resist whatever terms the European Union throws its way, and should Britain refuse to pay its tab, Darvas warns, the EU will label the U.K. a counterparty in default, creating a legal, political, and economic maelstrom for the country. Meanwhile, the EU, benefited by an automatic mechanism that would increase payments by remaining member states by a meager 0.06 percent, would escape unscathed.
The damage for Britain doesn’t end there. Given the centrality of the single market to many Britain-based businesses and the current expectation that access to that single market will be continued in some shape or form, Sampson said, “the EU is going to be in a position to pick off bits of U.K. business piece-by-piece when it wants to.” Britain’s overseas residents may be in jeopardy too. In the event of a no-deal exit, the only thing governing residency rights will be a memorandum of understanding that the EU will take a “generous approach” to the rights of U.K. citizens in the EU if the U.K. does the same. If caution is thrown to the wind, however, that expectation may be too great, and overseas professionals, pensioners, and 40,000 Erasmus students—a total of 1.3 million Brits living in Europe—may pay the price. The same would certainly apply to the 3.7 million Europeans living Britain, but weighing up the social, political, and economic costs of a hostile crash out, the vulnerabilities are quite lopsided—and not in Britain’s favor. While most of these vulnerabilities will not be exploited, they will still serve to show how Britain, in its bid to take back control from Brussels, lost its way, its leverage, and billions of pounds in the process.
“Taking back control” was never going to be easy. With the initial decision split 52 percent in favor of leaving and 48 percent in favor of remaining, and with the nation now split 46 percent in favor of remaining and 41 percent in favor of leaving, it was inevitable that Britain would present to Brussels a fractured front. The divisions have been on full display in recent days as protests for and against Brexit have come over the nation and as Westminster has shattered into a million pieces with calls for no deal, a harder deal, Theresa May’s deal, a softer deal, and a second referendum. It was equally inevitable that the EU, hoping to stave off a Grexit or Frexit or any other exit, would hold the line against all of Britain’s attempts to secure zero-sum wins off of Brussels’ back. Slicing up the single market, writing off the “Irish backstop,” and affording indefinite extensions would never come about. Nor, as far as we can currently see, would a new Britain with new control at home and new authority abroad, a “Global Britain,” be born. So far, it’s just “Little England,” with control of neither its present nor its future. If it appears that the European Union is dictating the terms of Britain’s Brexit, it’s because it certainly can and certainly is.
Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London. Twitter: @StephenPaduano