Commentary: The case for UK’s Brexit chaos

Compromise is the loveliest word in democratic politics and beyond – in lasting relationships, labor disputes, international relations. British Prime Minister Theresa May has never more needed the deployment of this lovely and necessary word than now.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Earlier this month, she managed to convince her cabinet – composed of both pro- and anti-Brexit ministers – to accept a compromise between a complete break with the European Union on the one side, and a more gentle exit on the other.

The agreement she managed to thrash out is a fraught document, keeping as many of the advantages as she thinks the EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will accept, and emphasizing the freedoms it will give a Brexit-ed Britain. It is also replete with unanswered questions and with proposals that will demand large upheavals in the movement both of people and commodities.

It will harmonize the handling of all goods, aimed at avoiding friction on the Irish border; the European Court and UK courts will jointly interpret agreements, though the EU will continue to define the Union’s rules; the UK will charge its own tariffs on EU goods, but collect tariffs on goods destined for the Union on its behalf, in what is called “a combined customs territory.” Free movement of people will cease, but a mobility agreement will be signed, allowing people to move in order to study, to visit as tourists and to work.

It is now in play, and to be accepted, it needs compromises on the right and left – from which points competing forces are volleying and thundering. The right is now strengthened by the resignation, after the agreement, of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Brexit department minister Steve Baker, all released from collective responsibility. They will make, with some force, the charge that this is not what the British people voted for in the 2016 referendum.

Johnson put it most colorfully, when he compared the proposal to polishing a piece of excrement. Less cloacally, the basic complaint is that it retains too much Union. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a back bencher who has made himself the Savonarola of the Brexiteers, has said that “it now appears that Brexit means remaining subject to EU laws” – and plans radical amendments.

On the left, the opposition Labour Party indicates it is unlikely to support the plan: the Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that it was “unworkable” and “a bureaucratic nightmare.” This may mean, if the Tory rebels are numerous enough – around 60 – and few if any Labour members vote to support, that the prime minister may not get the plan through the cabinet. And even if she does, the EU’s Barnier may reject it, and demand further compromises which May cannot give. One of the UK’s leading pollsters, Peter Kellner, warned that “there remains a huge gulf – indeed, a range of huge gulfs – between the government’s new position and the European Union’s.” Barnier, for his part, told a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in New York this week that partnership in a single market “cannot amount to membership.”

This is seen, universally, as a huge, debilitating mess. Picking up on these media themes, U.S. President Donald Trump gleefully waded into the maelstrom during his visit to the UK this week, taking the undiplomatic step of telling the Sun newspaper that the prime minister’s plan would “probably kill” any trade deal between the United States and the UK; that former Foreign Secretary Johnson would “make a great prime minister;” and he had told May how to do the Brexit deal, but “she didn’t listen to me.”

Then a new day brought a new performance, with Trump deriding his own interview as fake news, saying that the U.S.-UK relationship is “at the highest level of special,” and that he thought that "this incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, a great job." The British government has the choice of believing one of these, disbelieving both or simply ignoring them.

But the commentariat, and much of political opinion, have got what they have long lamented was absent – a democratic debate about an issue of cardinal importance. It’s chaos but, as a Remain voter, I see it as chaos with merits.

First, it has revealed that the Brexiteers are fighting on a principle – of returning powers to the national parliament. This is in line – if more forcefully expressed – with a general movement in the EU itself. Witness the positions of the Central European states and now the Italian government. See the speech in Berlin earlier this year by Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, speaking it seems for many of the smaller states and explicitly contradicting French President Emmanuel Macron's project for greater integration – ("I do not believe that we’ve been marching inevitably towards a federal system all along,” Rutte said. “Nor should that be our goal in the twenty-first century.") 

The UK’s decision to exit has pushed Rutte’s view much further. It would have been better if the EU had recognized that the UK was in tune with a general view, and instituted a general debate within the Union on competencies and powers. Something which, had it been available to David Cameron, the former prime minister who called the Brexit referendum, could have kept the EU intact.

Second, it has revealed that if the Brexiteers have a principle – national sovereignty - then the Remainers need one too, and not just a (well-founded) fear of economic turbulence and a vague aspiration for togetherness, un-anchored to any precise proposals of what the EU should become. If there is a case to be made that the referendum result should be reversed, and the UK remain in, then it must be clear what being “in” means. Is it to accept continuing integration and transfer of powers from the national to the EU level? Or a much looser grouping, where nations retain sovereignty but cooperate closely?

So let chaos reign, for in this case, it means that democracy reigns, too. And in the end, a compromise must – and will – be found. For we are talking about democracies, with strong civil societies: and that means they have enough strength, embedded in the people, not to descend into real chaos.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. His books include “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “The Power and the Story.” He is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.