"Brexit means Brexit," Theresa May, the United Kingdom's new prime minister, insists. It is a simple and powerful slogan that sends an unmistakable message to all who have been hoping for a reevaluation of June's referendum result. The UK, it seems clear, will be leaving the European Union (EU). But that is where the clarity ends.
When Charles de Gaulle stood on the governor's balcony in Algiers on June 4, 1958, he told a crowd of French Algerian settlers, "Je vous ai compris!" ("I have understood you!"). Within a few years, he would negotiate Algerian independence, infuriating those same settlers. "Understand," it turned out, did not mean "sympathize."
May's favourite sound bite could be similarly misleading -- a possibility that has not been lost on her Conservative Party's pro-Brexit right. Does the "Brexit" of which May speaks entail the kind of "hard" departure from the EU that many, if not most, "Leave" supporters want, or will she pursue a softer approach?
A "hard" Brexit would entail the severing of all existing links between the UK and the EU: no more contributions to the common budget and an end to free labour mobility. This position assumes that Europe is in economic and cultural decline, and thus has nothing much to offer the UK, which would benefit far more from deeper ties with, say, the emerging economies of Asia and South America. Hard Brexit is, in essence, an amputation.
A "soft" Brexit would reflect the view that the UK is still a part of Europe, and that Britain still has much to gain from close EU ties, with the City of London, in particular, depending on openness to foreign workers, both skilled and unskilled, and frictionless capital flows. As such, the UK must continue to play by EU rules and ensure that economic and political relations with Europe remain central to British policy.
Such a soft Brexit would amount to the triumph of a realistic worldview over a self-defeating perspective underpinned by an implausible notion of sovereignty. It is the UK's better option. But there are major obstacles to choosing it.
A soft Brexit, in the current context, would not differ much from the compromise with the EU that former Prime Minister David Cameron's government negotiated in February -- the deal that 51.9% of UK voters rejected in June. As part of that compromise, the EU recognized the possibility of multiple currencies within the Union and accepted the UK's right to place temporary limits on social benefits that encourage migration. That "emergency brake" on migration would, in a soft Brexit, be extended, essentially becoming permanent.
An effective soft Brexit agreement would have to go beyond these issues to define Britain's relationship to Europe. This would demand not just soul-searching in the UK, but also the establishment of a clear vision of what Europe actually is.
The UK's connection with Europe has long been semi-detached. "We are with Europe, but not of it," Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1953 during a discussion of a proposed European defence community. "We are linked, but not combined. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed."
That seems to reflect the stance -- expressed by Cameron and former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne -- that helped to set the stage for Brexit. In response to the euro crisis, they argued that Europe needed more fiscal integration, but without the UK; there would be no British financial participation in future euro rescue operations. Solidarity (at least the kind that costs money) stopped at the English Channel.
But, like de Gaulle's declaration and May's slogan, Churchill's statements employed the language of political ambiguity. Both proponents and opponents of Brexit appealed to Churchill's spirit during the referendum campaign. The most reasonable interpretation, somewhat surprisingly, was summed up by Boris Johnson, a leader of the Leave campaign and Britain's new foreign secretary: with regard to Europe, Churchill was pro having his cake -- and pro eating it.
In any case, the problem of defining Europe remains. Does the EU's survival depend on the deeper and closer integration of a core group of countries? For people who believe that it does, particularly in France and Germany, Brexit provides an opportunity to streamline and clarify the rules -- and the objective -- of the game.
But others prefer to maintain some degree of ambiguity, which facilitates consensus on complex issues and helps keep leaders in power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel falls into this category, making her a kind of a continental counterpart to May. This strategy of using vagueness to create space for disparate political systems and mindsets -- and, at times, even to persuade the many to support the decisions of the few -- will continue to impede efforts to define Europe, thereby undermining the negotiation of a soft Brexit.
The British are quite comfortable with ambiguity. The most important single work of British literary analysis in the twentieth century is William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. According to Empson, ambiguity implies the possibility that alternative views can be taken, "without sheer misreading." From a statement that reveals the author's "complicated" perspective to one that highlights a fundamental conflict in the author's mind, Empson's poetic ambiguities certainly do not seem out of place in politics -- especially British politics today. The question now is whether Europe's 27 sources of ambiguity can tolerate a 28th.
Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Project Syndicate, 2016.