October 21, 2021

A Short History of Brexit

Three days ago, the BBC had the idea of reporting about Brexit in a novel, interactive way and allowing the audience to ask questions under the hashtag #BBCaskthis. Unfortunately, it reinforced the ongoing paralysis of minds and opinions. Politicians and political journalists find themselves in the Brexit quagmire and have no idea how they got there or how to get out of it. The public’s comments reflect this. Repeating the same questions and answers does not lead to different results.

The question of interest is how the BBC and other media could have reported or can report differently about Brexit? Could there have been a different debate that would have led to a different, positive outcome?

Brexit is complicated and complex. Much is uncertain with regards of Brexit but we know a few things for sure. Because of Brexit, we observe:

  • Splits in families
  • Splits in society
  • Splits in the main parties
  • Splits in the cabinet

We also observe an increase in:

  • Racism
  • Antisemitism
  • Islamophobia
  • Xenophobia
  • Hate and violence against minorities

At the same time, not many positive consequences of Brexit if any have been observed. Because of these negative consequences of Brexit, one hopes that there could have been an alternative. A political debate, a democratic debate for the better. And there is. There are specific reasons why Brexit went wrong. As time goes by, it becomes however more and more difficult to rectify and not to live with the consequences.

It is surreal to observe these negative consequences from the leave vote in the EU Referendum. It is extraordinary to observe that leaving the EU goes hand-in-glove with more racism and phobias, hate and bigotry. A Brexit focussing on intolerance threatens the unity of the United Kingdom. Conversely, Brexit is a high price to pay to learn that membership in the EU represents values like respect and tolerance.

Democratic values should be intrinsic to any democratic party. As such, it is appalling to observe widespread islamophobia in the Tory party, and antisemitism in the Labour party. What is profoundly worse however than the existence of racism, is how these parties and party leaders act upon. Racism cannot be treated like any matter of policy with different shades of grey, with longwinded debates and unpreparedness. Party leaders have lost their democratic compass. When the democratic foundation is missing, there is no interest whatsoever in what policies they might advocate.

Immigration is by many given as a reason for Brexit. The debate about immigration is however a distraction from real issues, and has mostly negative consequences. When immigration is defined as a problem in itself, there is only a small step to consider migrants as the problem, with the known consequences of racism, xenophobia and violence.

So, with all these negative consequences observed and economic and political fallout unfolding:

What went wrong with Brexit?

What mistakes have been made? Is there a way out?

Mistake 1: The EU Referendum was not a binary choice

How can anyone make a statement that the EU Referendum was not about the choice between two outcomes? Wasn’t the EU Referendum about Remain or Leave? Isn’t this just like a choice between black and white, hot or cold, left or right, stay or go, in or out?

No, it wasn’t and it isn’t.

There are fundamental differences between Remain and Leave choices.

Remain was a clear choice. It was about staying inside the European Union, with all its rules and regulations.

“Leave means leave” was the slogan of the leave campaign and tried to unify their voters around a simple and apparently clear choice. The simplicity was also to avoid a debate or making any difficult choice for or against European frameworks, and thousands of rules and regulations. Though delaying any meaningful debate until after the referendum diminishes its legitimacy. The hollowness of the leave vote is the main reason for the chaos the Brexit process has become.

Remainers made the mistake to describe the potentially negative impacts of leaving certain European frameworks or abandoning one or the other rule and regulation, and not holding Brexiters to account instead. Leavers successfully shouted down any debate by calling this “Project Fear”.

While this scheme helped push the leave vote to 52%, nobody could know in any detail what leave really meant. This was a self-inflicted handicap of the leave campaign going forward.

Still today, many people erroneously believe that the referendum question was a binary choice. This can be seen by reactions like:

  • “We voted leave, get on with it”
  • “Politicians must fulfil their mandate to leave”
  • “Not implementing leave would be a betrayal of the public”
  • “A second referendum undermines our democracy”
  • “The EU wants to punish the UK”

Politicians, the media and citizens still today do not challenge the belief that the leave vote was a binary choice, and show that a leave vote without a project was futile.

This is probably to avoid that voters feel betrayed by the referendum and its fallout.

Parliament voted for the referendum and the referendum question in the hope that stakeholders will present their project. Brexiters are responsible that the leave vote was hollow and meaningless.

Mistake 2: No detailed Brexit proposals

As a result of the EU Referendum, politicians, the media and the public widely accepted that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union to respect “the vote of the people”.

This was the critical moment where the public could have been brought together around Brexit, to achieve not a Brexit of 52% but support of 80 or 90% of the population.

This moment was wasted.

The Prime Minister, the Government and Brexiters have individual responsibilities for this opportunity to go wasted.

No one provided a Brexit proposal in any more detail than a slogan, a newspaper article or a speech.

The Prime Minister set out her priorities for the Brexit negotiations with the EU in her Lancaster House speech, and her vision about the future relationship with the EU in her Mansion House speech.

Lack of detail was only surpassed by the absence of proposals of any Brexiter. The Government was left to their own device by default.

Still today, there is no detailed proposal for Brexit by anyone, not by the ERG, and not by any of the most vocal Brexiters like Boris Johnson, Dave Davis, Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Nigel Farage.

A detailed proposal, that is a 500+ page document that analyses all aspects of European frameworks and 1000s of rules and regulations and their consequences that UK should or should not be part of.

Brexiters have a singular responsibility for Brexit and to contribute to Brexit proposals and the debate as it was their brainwave to leave the EU. Also, Brexiters rather than Remainers should have detailed analysis and plans at hand when undertaking such a journey with the country. Besides, the referendum campaign and being shouted down with “Project Fear” does not make Remainers now wanting to lead the effort for Brexit proposals.

Mistake 3: No Brexit Debate

Nobody came forward with any detailed proposal, be it due to incompetence or laziness. The ERG let Brexit run its course. The Government winged Brexit and the negotiation of the EU Withdrawal Agreement without being held accountable.

The consequence of non-existent detailed Brexit proposals meant there was no Brexit debate. No one wanted to debate any of the possible options for the future relationship with the EU, being in or out of different European frameworks, and any of the thousands of European rules and regulations.

Leave voters like to argue that both major parties have gone into the 2017 election on leave manifestos and politicians should therefore implement Brexit. This argument has lost all credibility today. The politicians’ goodwill has been frustrated by a continuous lack of proposals, debate and consensus to build upon the manifesto pledges. The leave manifestos have collapsed by events.

The ongoing Brexit fatigue among the population cannot hide the fact that there was no meaningful debate around Brexit. The Brexit fatigue is a logical consequence of debating around the lack of detail after a meaningless and hollow leave vote.

Brexit remains a hollow undertaking.

Mistake 4: No Brexit Plan

Various detailed Brexit proposals could have led to a Brexit debate. A Brexit debate could have led to consensus. It could have led to the public being taken along on the Brexit journey. A Brexit debate could have generated a Brexit plan. A plan could have potentially found a large majority in the population, and could have healed splits in society and politics.

Detailed Brexit proposals and a vigorous Brexit debate to mobilise the public around a widely supported Brexit plan could and would have been in fact the only alternative to counteract the unhealthy negative consequences of Brexit described above.

Nevertheless, no detailed Brexit proposals meant no meaningful debate. No debate meant no consensus and no plan on the future relationship with the EU.

The Future of Brexit: No Deal? Second Referendum? Remain?

The prime minister’s proposed EU Withdrawal Agreement got everything wrong: It is based on her narrow vision on the future relationship with the European Union that was not defined in any meaningful detail for the public to come on board, it includes Theresa May’s arbitrary red lines that caused her to negotiate the Irish Backstop into the Withdrawal Agreement to maintain peace in Ireland, and it was heavily defeated by Parliament.

Time is running out.

Time was wasted before the Referendum, since the Referendum and since Article 50.

The UK Kingdom is leaving the EU on March 29, 2019.

The EU can only extend the transition period if there are substantial reasons such as an election, a new referendum or possibly the need for Parliament to pass a limited set of laws. An extension cannot happen to carry out a necessary debate that was avoided all these years.

In absence of a meaningful debate, none of the fundamental flaws and mistakes of the Brexit process are being addressed. The leave vote has been squandered. Brexit has never been filled with any meaning, specifically by Brexiters.

No deal is better than a bad deal was the motto of the Prime Minister and hard Brexiters. Nothing is further from reality. To avoid the worst, the EU has provided the legal basis so that British banks and airlines can continue to operate in Europe after March 29. The same cannot be said about large parts of the economy and people that feel the growing squeeze.

No deal is still a realistic threat and default train crash.

The Brexit debate could have happened in a democratic and civilised way. It could have avoided splits, hate and racism in their different forms.

Earlier or later, Brexiters will face the reality that they let down voters by disrupting the Brexit process.

Earlier or later, if the UK wants to have a future relationship with the EU, it will need to have a Brexit debate that includes the details and benefits of such a relationship.