May 21, 2019

Divorced, But Still Living Together

“According to Brexit’s leading advocates, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union was going to be simple. Striking a free trade deal with the EU should be “one of the easiest in human history,” International Trade Secretary Liam Fox told reporters in July 2017. “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised voters on the campaign trail in April 2016. Overall, Brexit would result in “a better deal for the people of this country, to save them money and to take control,” vowed leading Brexit ideologue Boris Johnson in the run-up to the 2016 referendum—a “deal that is exhilarating for this country, that is a massive opportunity and that liberates us to champion free trade round the world.”

Few of those heady promises have survived contact with reality. After two years of talks, and with less than six months to go before the U.K. is due to formally leave the EU on March 29, 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May emerged last week with a draft withdrawal plan that she must now persuade Parliament to ratify. The 500-plus-page text is “a remarkable document that’s united all kinds of people from every side of the debate,” observed one former senior Downing Street advisor. “Everybody hates it.”

Both ardent supporters of leaving the EU and those passionate about remaining agree—May’s deal offers something considerably worse than Britain’s current full membership of the EU, with none of the promised upsides.

Prominent Leaver Dominic Raab, who quit his post as Brexit secretary in protest of the deal, denounced the EU’s insistence that Britain follow its rules indefinitely as the price of continuing access to Europe’s single market. “No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to exit the arrangement,” Raab wrote in his resignation letter. He is one of the front-runners to succeed May in the event of a successful leadership challenge by hard-line Brexiteers.”

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