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globe editorial

Brexit skeptic Theresa May became British Prime Minister last summer, after her Conservative Party's cynical decision to hold a referendum it aimed to lose resulted instead in a narrow victory for the law of unintended consequences. Offered the choice between the humdrum status quo, or a fantasy Britain that could magically leave the EU while continuing to enjoy its benefits, a slim majority chose Fantasy Island.

The question was how the politicians would respond. There was hope that Ms. May, a supporter of the Remain side and a generally sober sort, might be the leader to walk her country back from the edge.

Nope. This week, after months of delay, Ms. May finally laid out her plans. Brexit it is. The voters demanded an own goal; her government is going to do its best to score one. Or more.

Ms. May is not Donald Trump, and Great Britain is not America. The forces driving politics in the U.K. are related to those in the U.S., but they're not the same. For example, the Brexit vote isn't connected to issues of race. It isn't about fear of Muslims. And it isn't anti-trade.

But the decision of British voters to go for Brexit is a chapter in a larger story of the political forces on both sides of the Atlantic that are beginning to pick apart the ideas, institutions and ideals of the postwar global order. One of those institutions is the EU.

In laying out her Brexit plans, Ms. May tried to sound conciliatory toward the Europeans she is about to negotiate with. "The decision to leave the EU," she said, "represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours. It was no attempt to do harm to the EU."

But it will harm the increasingly fragile EU, and pro-EU European leaders know it. Their domestic political interests will demand that Britain be treated harshly. It's hard to see how this divorce is going to be amicable.

Since Britain is the weaker party, and the one with the most to lose, Ms. May also tried to talk tough. She threatened that if the EU wouldn't give Britain what it wants – out of the EU, but back in on free trade and some other provisions – Britain could retaliate by turning itself into a kind of Cayman Islands of the North Sea, a giant offshore tax haven off the European coast.

In the coming months, Ms. May will trigger Article 50 of the European Union treaty, the EU's never-before used exit clause. A state invoking it has two years to negotiate the terms of withdrawal. If it and the union's 27 other partners fail to come to term terms, it leaves with nothing.

Yes, the United Kingdom is capable of surviving economically, and even thriving, outside of the EU. The transition to a post-EU Britain will be painful and costly. But even if Britain enjoyed no more access to European markets than other countries have through the international trade rules under the WTO, Britain would still be a relatively prosperous and productive country.

However, the key word is "relatively." The free trade the U.K. enjoys with the continent, plus a customs union and the free movement of people, is a significant positive for the British economy. London has become a European financial capital, its massive banking industry designed in part to serve a European market that, so long as it is within the EU, is not foreign. Whatever economic successes Britain can enjoy outside of the common market, things would be relatively better, and in some cases relatively much better, by remaining inside.

And yes, the United Kingdom may survive politically if it leaves the EU – but that is going to be even more of a challenge. The Brexit vote exposed deep divisions within British society, and among the nations that make up Great Britain. There is nothing remotely close to a country-wide consensus. Brexit could spell the end of Great Britain, leaving it a rump of a country.

Scotland, which itself narrowly voted against leaving the U.K. in a 2014 referendum, is strongly pro-EU. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments in favour of Scotland remaining within the U.K. was that a vote to leave Britain would mean having to somehow negotiate entry back into the EU. If Britain leaves the EU, Scottish independence looks more attractive, and less illogical, than ever.

One of the great ironies is that those in favour of Brexit say it's about doing away with meddling from Brussels, and empowering ancient British institutions – above all Parliament.

But Ms. May didn't present her Brexit plan to Parliament. Nor does she want Parliament to vote on it. In fact, next week, the Supreme Court will decide whether Parliament needs to vote before Article 50 can be triggered; the court is expected to rule that it must. It's not at all clear that the House of Commons favours invoking Article 50.

Thanks to those ancient British institutions, Brexit's not a done deal yet.