The current state of Brexit in the Parliament at Westminster would be funny if it were not so tragic. Prime Minister Theresa May has clearly failed to create terms, in conjunction with the EU, that would ease Britain out of the Union without a whole lot of pain. At the moment Britain is facing what many call a “hard” Brexit. In other words, a departure from the EU with no guarantees whatever about post-departure trade, commerce, financial and immigration arrangements, nothing. On the one hand there would continue to be an EU and on the other there would be Great Britain standing in isolation from the continent as she stood for many centuries. And that, if we judge public opinion by the votes of its members of Parliament, would be unacceptable to the British.
So now what? May leads a badly divided Conservative Party that can hardly agree on anything except that, in looking over the cliff of a hard Brexit, they are very nervous about what they see at the bottom of that cliff. Thus May is seeking a delay. But to what end? At the end of the delay there will still be a very hard decision for the U.K.; hard Brexit or, in the event that the thought of jumping over that cliff proves too much, giving up on the idea of Brexit altogether.
The European Union is not a federation, as Canada, the United States, Australia and many other countries are. But in this case, it is acting like a federation would act if one part of that federation decided to leave. In U.S. history, southern secession brought on a long and very bloody civil war. President Abraham Lincoln believed that the very bedrock of American democracy was at stake because the majority of the people of the United States did not want their country to be divided.
In Canada we underwent two referendums in which Quebec governments tried to tease out a majority of Quebecers supporting some sort of “sovereignty-association” with the “Rest of Canada.” In neither case did anyone in Quebec ask the rest of Canada what we wanted and whether or not we would support “sovereignty-association” with an independent Quebec. And what was this sovereignty-association in the minds of the Quebec separatists? It was, they asserted, an agreement between Quebec and Canada that would cover issues such as a common currency, taxes and tariffs, the disposition of federal property, a common defence, etc.
The Quebec separatists never seemed to understand that if Canada reached an easy agreement with an independent Quebec, it would pose a very bad example for what might happen if, say, British Columbia decided that it too wanted some form of sovereignty-association with the shrinking “rest of Canada.”
The basic interest of the EU is to keep the EU together. That task has had several serious challenges over the past two and a half decades, especially when the EU –— perhaps foolishly — decided to adopt a single currency when each EU member still controlled fiscal policy within its own borders.
We saw the consequences of that after the global financial meltdown of 2008. But even with all the bad blood that ensued, the EU stayed together. Why? Because by the late 2000s the ties that bound the EU together since its founding in 1993 had grown to the point where the national interest of its member countries outstripped the individual interests of each of its member countries.
The basic interest of the EU is to keep the EU together
Today several members of the EU have taken hard turns to the right, primarily because of the ongoing crisis of massive migration from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe. Old nationalisms that were hidden under the veneer of prosperity up to 2008 have emerged in countries such as Hungary, Germany, Poland and Italy. But even so, in no EU country has the desire to leave the EU emerged as a majority movement.
By this point in time, inertia alone has become a powerful force keeping the EU together. EU leaders certainly see some interests in giving Britain some sort of deal, but not to the point where they are prepared to throw rice and confetti as Britain departs.
Thus May has the best deal she is ever going to get and it is not enough for a majority of the British Parliament. At this point Britain must take the hard lumps of a hard Brexit or crawl back to an EU that is not amused by what has taken place since the referendum.