Brexit Day is now Oct. 31, the European Union granting the United Kingdom yet another stay of Brexit-cution, which was supposed to have taken place March 29 and then April 12. Let’s leave aside that Oct. 31 is Halloween. I don’t think the E.U. is ironic enough to have chosen that day for its gallows humor. And indeed Nov. 1 is the day the new president of the European Commission is set to take office, so presumably the E.U. needs to have this resolved by then. But will it be resolved?
Like the acerbic, egomaniacal critic in the 1939 comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” who breaks a leg at his hosts’ home and proceeds to monopolize their lives — though in an amusing way — the British are never going to leave. And there’s nothing funny about it.
They’re never going to leave, because, let’s face it, deep down they don’t want to, and they just can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that. Or they want to leave — some, maybe even many do — but not without the benefits of staying. How crazy is that?
To top that, they have a form of government that discourages bipartisanship. Is it any wonder that they are like the trapped, unrequited trio in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No Exit,” which includes the line “Hell is other people.” Yes, quite.
No one wants to compromise any more. We just talk past one another. On Friday, I had a delightful conversation with two conservative supporters of President Donald J. Trump — a couple who divide their time between Florida and Australia and who were having lunch in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Dining Room at the table next to where I was doing some writing for work. We disagreed on much but with respect and humor. So it is possible.
But the problem here is that the situation is set up for defeat. The British can’t hold a second referendum on Brexit, or believe they can’t, without nullifying the democratic process, however flawed, that was the first referendum, which gave them Brexit. But they can’t just leave the European Union without a thought to the financial and sociopolitical upheaval it would cause, especially on the currently open border between Northern Ireland — which voted to remain but is part of the leaving United Kingdom — and the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member.
So round and round the Brits go, and you have to wonder — even if you think Brexit is a bad idea, as I do — what difference will a few months or a year make if they haven’t figured it out by now? Still, they can’t seem to jump off the diving board, perhaps because they have a sense of just how cold the water will be. President Barack Obama hinted that Britain would have to get at the end of the queue in any U.S. trade negotiations. Now those USDA chickens are coming home to roost as the art of the dealer in chief — who has, of course, promised the Brits “a very, very big deal very, very quickly” — takes a hard line on access for American agricultural goods while expecting the Brits not to cheat on us commercially with the Chinese.
Quickie quiz: Who do you think is in the driver’s seat here? If the Brits were expecting to be the aged parent taken in by their most successful child, they have found they are indeed Lear thrown up on the heath by Goneril and Regan with no loving Cordelia in sight. As one snarky poster noted, the transatlantic shipping costs alone are going to bury them. For the full effect of that, the post went on, the British can check in with America’s “other island colony” — Puerto Rico. Ouch.
So it’s not hard to understand why the British can neither stay nor go. They’re tied up in a Gordian Knot that can only be unraveled — or perhaps cut — by someone with real leadership skills, which seem to be sadly lacking at the moment.
Until then, cue Sartre.