Brexit is officially a joke. The two years are nearly up and the United Kingdom is supposed to leave the European Union—except that a large number of politicians who backed Brexit are neither prepared to support a hard departure that would extricate Britain immediately from all the institutional arrangements of the union, nor prepared to support Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to negotiate a soft Brexit with Europe that would keep Britain partly tied to the union.
The truth is that Brexit continues to revolve around a basic dilemma: to break up the United Kingdom or to break up Ireland. Most Brexiteers are not prepared to break up either one. The vote against a hard Brexit would indicate Brexiteers want a soft departure. But a soft Brexit negates the essential premise of Brexit, which is to leave the Single Market based on the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, and the Customs Union that forces every country to apply the same tariffs to goods coming from outside, both of which are at the heart of the EU. Then again, if they want a soft Brexit, why did they deny Theresa May the votes she needed for the plan she negotiated with the EU?
Many of those who campaigned to leave the EU are being grotesquely inconsistent. Brexiteers are a mix of classical liberals (a minority) who hate the bureaucratic constructivism of the EU with good reason and nationalists (a majority) who want to keep outsiders from meddling in their affairs and migrating to their country. Some of the classical liberals now worry that leaving will entail hard economic consequences and give a free hand to the nationalists who want to replace Europe’s bureaucracy with their own. But they knew that when they supported Brexit. And the nationalists realize that splitting the United Kingdom (by leaving Northern Ireland on the other side of the hard political and economic border with the EU) will undermine the sovereignty of many Britons or that splitting Ireland (by establishing the hard border with the EU on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) will rekindle the confrontation between unionists and republicans overcome by the peace agreements of the 1990s. But they knew that all along too.
Brexiteers who now fear a traumatic departure from the EU also fear the wrath of the people if they support a soft Brexit in Parliament because, ultimately, it will mean remaining in the Single Market or in the Customs Union (but with less influence) and therefore continuing to accept interference by the European bureaucracy and the European courts in Britain’s affairs.
An agreement that kept the UK in the Single Market would imply accepting the four liberties, which includes the free movement of people as well as of goods, services and capital, a key part of the European construct for a long time—but an anathema to the Euroskeptics; an agreement that kept the UK in the Customs Union would allow the Brits to block the movement of people, but it would prevent them from making commercial agreements on their own with third countries (a major promise of the Euroskeptics).
The only way to be consistent with the result of the referendum held in 2016 is to leave Europe outright—and face the consequences, whatever they are. The British government’s attempt to persuade Europe to grant it more time to come up with a new plan makes little sense in the light of everything that has happened in the last couple of years, during which London and Brussels came up with a 500-page arrangement that failed to secure support—and which will not look very different if new negotiations are held. And if Mrs. May has reached the conclusion that she wants to keep Britain attached either to the Single Market or the Customs Union, she should tell her party, Parliament and the British people that she does not support Brexit any more.