Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University
This week opened Act 3 of a five-act drama called Brexit. The play will take at least five years, more likely 10, and only Act 5 will reveal whether it is a tragedy, a farce or some very British theatre of muddling-through. The many millions of us in Britain who identify ourselves as Europeans must not give up now, as if the show were over. It’s not, and we’re not just the audience. We are actors in this play and our main task is to persuade our fellow actors.
Act 1 was the referendum and Act 2 the run-up to triggering Article 50. Act 3 is the two-year negotiation that, according to the Lisbon Treaty, must conclude in spring, 2019. Obviously that’s an important moment, but not the drama’s end. Prime Minister Theresa May says in her letter to European Council President Donald Tusk that she wants the free-trade agreement between Britain and the European Union to be “of greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before it.” It is most unlikely that such an ambitious, comprehensive agreement can be negotiated in two years, even if that negotiation were to start in earnest at the same time as the exit one, which the EU 27 are saying must come first.
There is therefore almost certain to be Act 4, in which Britain has a transitional arrangement with the EU, while what Article 50 vaguely describes as the “framework for its future relationship with the Union” is turned into a full-blown, comprehensive agreement. All precedent on free-trade negotiations, especially those with this multinational union, suggests that this will take years, taking us perhaps to 2021 or 2022. Only then will we enter Act 5, in which the consequences of that final deal gradually emerge, well into the 2020s.
Even this timetable understates the uncertainties. Divorce between man and wife is complicated enough, but this one is between two complex unions, each of which is going through an existential crisis: the British union, mainly because of Brexit, and the European Union, for which Brexit is only one of many crises.
What’s for certain is that most European leaders are now focused on saving the EU and addressing their own pressing political problems, not on helping Britain.
On the British side, the big “known unknowns” include Scotland, Ireland and the economic impact on Britain of the shape of Brexit as it is seen to be emerging during Act 3. This will depend on market sentiment, but also on how millions of Brits view their own position. This is where we, the other half of British society, and just as much “the people” as those who voted for Brexit, come into the picture.
Britain is a democracy and democracy does not mean “one person, one vote, once.” Nor does it mean “one people, one vote, once.” David Davis, who is now Brexit secretary, said in a speech about Britain’s relationship with the EU a few years ago that “if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” Exactly so. But for that, some of the people who elect the politicians have to change their minds. This is unlikely to happen soon. It’s human nature to be reluctant to acknowledge that you were wrong. Although market sentiment can change rapidly, the negative economic consequences of Brexit seem unlikely to become undeniably apparent to ordinary voters in the next year or two. Or more optimistically, it takes time to burst the populist bubble.
This is where the five-act timetable comes in. Although the parliamentary vote on the interim result of the negotiation in fall, 2018, will be an important moment, it currently seems unlikely that public opinion will have swung so decisively that a parliamentary majority would actually vote to send Ms. May back to Brussels with a flea in her ear, buzzing at her to get a better deal.
But if I’m right, and there will be Act 4, then it’s a different story. In those crucial years, the economic consequences will become clearer, there will probably be a second Scottish referendum on independence, the pain caused by drawing an EU external frontier across the island of Ireland may become apparent – and above all, there must be a general election in 2020. With a better leader of the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties pushing in a similar direction, a different popular mandate could emerge for a new government negotiating the final terms of Brexit.
I don’t say this scenario is likely, but it’s possible. In order to get there, we British Europeans have to work out ways of reaching some of those Brexit voters, recognizing that they are in no mood to be lectured by metropolitan liberals (e.g., Guardian columnists). We need to penetrate the echo chambers of populism with plain facts and good British common sense.
Instead of going on about “stopping Brexit,” which allows us to be quite effectively pilloried as whingeing Remoaners, we should state the new goal positively. Of course I still want Britain to remain a member of the EU, just as a Brexiteer would still have wanted Britain to leave it if the referendum had gone the other way. But as I wrote just a week after the referendum vote, our strategic goal should be “to keep as much as possible of our disunited kingdom as fully engaged as possible in the affairs of our continent.” Ms. May talks of a “deep and special partnership” with the EU: Let’s make that very deep and very special. And who knows what opportunities the next years might bring? We are only at the opening of Act 3, and there is still much to play for.Report Typo/Error
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