Winter is coming to the UK

Harold James in Princeton | Published: November 04, 2018 22:18:31


The United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union  is rapidly unravelling. The "Chequers plan" upon which British Prime Minister Theresa May has based her negotiating strategy is dead on arrival. It has been rejected not just by the European Union (EU) and the opposition Labour Party, but also by enough Conservative MPs to ensure that it would fail a parliamentary vote.

Accordingly, the May government's only option has been to delay and hope that something turns up (also known as kicking the can down the road). But while the current impasse could simply mean that May's negotiating strategy was flawed, it also could mean that the underlying logic of Brexit is incoherent.

For its part, the Chequers plan relies on a series of uneasy compromises. The United Kingdom (UK) would maintain a customs relationship with the EU, but it would not be in the EU customs union. Instead, both UK and EU courts would enforce a common "rulebook," and the UK would be able to diverge from EU trade rules when making agreements with third parties.

But even if this customs-union fudge were palatable to both sides, there would still be the question of the Irish border. Specifically, there would either have to be a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which will remain in the EU), or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The first scenario would threaten the Irish peace process; the second would destroy the UK.

Brexit is based on the belief that national sovereignty is the only rational basis for international order. Academics would refer to this as "realism," which holds that states are driven by clearly defined and articulated interests that perpetually collide with one another at the global level. A popular non-academic rendering of this doctrine can be found in the HBO series Game of Thrones (GOT), which combines Shakespearean elements with fantasy.

For many viewers, "GOT" has become a lens for understanding contemporary reality. At this year's International Monetary Fund-World Bank Annual Meeting in Bali, Indonesian President Joko Widodo channelled the main theme of the series when he warned that, "Winter is coming." As the "great houses" of the United States and China compete for control of the "iron throne," a global crisis that will spare no one becomes increasingly likely.

By portraying a world of treachery and broken alliances, GOT serves as the perfect fable for our current moment of international uncertainty. It is also a must-watch among Brexiteers. Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the "Leave" campaign, has identified the mastermind underdog Tyrion Lannister as his favourite character on the show.

According to GOT-style realism, the EU makes no sense institutionally, because it is based on an impossible premise: the transcendence of nationalism and state interests. One of the driving forces behind Brexit was the belief that Europe was breaking apart under the weight of insurmountable debt and uncontrolled migration. The UK was simply escaping from a burning house before it collapsed.

The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores all of the ways that EU institutions, regulatory authorities, and legal frameworks hold the house together. To be sure, there are always some people in some countries who dislike some rules. Northern and southern Europeans had very different perspectives on the euro crisis; eastern and western Europeans have very different views on refugees. But the main political divides are within, not between, societies, and the prospect of an exit would most likely intensify them.

After all, a new order brings new divisions, as is now apparent in the UK. The City of London is torn between banks that are worried about losing their European clients and markets, and hedge funds that are looking forward to being free of European regulations. Some farmers are worried about losing EU subsidies, while others think that a new framework could allow them to practice more sustainable agriculture. And some Brexiteers want more social spending, while others would like to become a deregulated paradise that competes with Singapore. Everyone wants a better world, but few can agree on what such a world would look like.

In continental Europe, the difficulty - if not impossibility - of formulating viable national exit strategies is now widely known. When Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (now called the National Rally) suggested a referendum on euro membership during the French presidential campaign in early 2017, she lost support. The same dynamic is now playing out in Italy, where the two populist parties in power have had to backpedal on past Eurosceptic remarks to make clear that "Italexit" is not on the table.

As the continental populists are learning, disengagement makes impossible demands of leaders. In the realist framework, a government must represent the country's interests perfectly. But national interests in a pluralist democracy are subject to constant debate and disagreement. The last time that realism made sense as a mode of interpreting the world was in the 1930s, when democracy was in crisis, and only authoritarians could act as the theory implied.

During the campaign for the June 2017 general election, May promised that she would lead a "strong and stable" government. But because she cannot rule as an autocrat, "strong and stable" is no longer an option, thanks to Brexit.

Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018

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