Like the student or reporter who simply cannot meet a deadline, the United Kingdom will today ask the European Union for a short (three-month) extension to the March 29 deadline for its leave-taking from that organization. No, that’s not the right simile. The British are like the soon-to-be-ex hubby, who needs to spend a few more months on your couch as he ponders his commitment to the woman he betrayed you with. How well does that end? The other 27 members of the E.U. must approve such a request. And they’re not inclined to a longer goodbye without a new game plan, which the Brits don’t seem to have. As Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, there’s really no point to the British “whining on for months.” Yes, quite.
Why is it so hard for the U.K. to quit the E.U.? The proximate answer is the open border between Northern Ireland, a member of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the E.U. Closing the border between what would become two separate entities would violate the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that brought an end to the violent era known as the Troubles between the North’s majority Protestants and its minority Roman Catholics. (The North, like Scotland, voted to remain in the E.U. England and Wales voted to leave.)
But this is larger even than that Pandora’s Box. Brexit is such a Gordion knot — we might as well mix all our classical metaphors here — because it began with a lie and is ending with a delusion. The Brexiteers like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox — who, by the way, headed for the hills the day after the vote blew up in everybody’s face — sold the British people a bill of goods about how money would be flowing back into Britain once it got rid of the E.U. and all those pesky foreigners. Actually, the opposite is true. Britain stands to lose hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies, to say nothing of the companies and workers that are hightailing it out of there.
In the aftermath of the initial debacle, Theresa May succeeded PM David Cameron — who initiated the crisis by calling for a vote he never imagined ending in Brexit. But May was a Remainer now charged with implementing the will of a narrow majority of Leavers. And implement it she did. Still, it might be argued that her heart was never really in it. She has tried to negotiate a no-Brexit Brexit that would retain the advantages of membership while executing the departure. But that has pleased neither the members of her Tory (Conservative) Party or the opposition (Liberal) Labour Party. What she is trying to avoid now is the country crashing out with a no-deal hard-Brexit that could gum up trade and travel between the Continent and the formerly “sceptered isle” and send world markets reeling.
There is, however, another reason that Brexit is so hard to achieve and it is bound up in the worldwide delusion that you can turn back the clock to a time — say the 1950s for America and the prewar days of empire for the Brits — when white nationalists ruled the world (or at least native-born Protestant Englishmen did, as the English idea of unwanted immigrants extends from Poles and Portuguese to Pakistanis). But time doesn’t flow backward. The manufacturing jobs that many members of the white working class held on both sides of the Pond have been lost not to trade but to technology, which is only going to develop further. It’s not just someone in China who’s assembling the car. It’s a robot.
What is needed is reinvention. So the question becomes why can’t members of the white working class reinvent themselves? And why do they resent immigrants, hungry for advancement, for doing jobs they won’t or can’t do?
This is the reason they love Brexit and President Donald J. Trump: The two say in effect that you can remain mired in mediocrity. We’ll just eliminate those people who threaten your status quo, who inadvertently offer a reproach to your lack of industry and education. And the money will start flowing back to you. Sure. Right. Uh-huh.
It’s a scheme built on falsehoods and that’s why there’s no way forward on Brexit and delay after delay, because consciously or unconsciously everyone knows it’s an idea with no forethought or sound reasoning.
And so Britain — and potentially the rest of the world — remain mired in stasis, which is its own special hell.