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The UK will be tackling the Brexit zombie long after exit day
As our International Relations colleagues like to tell us, most things can be explained by pop culture references to zombies. And so, it is with Brexit.
With the arrival of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, the casual observer might have understood that the ‘banging on about Europe’ was at an end and that the government’s mission of ‘getting Brexit done’ was accomplished.
After the false respite of the weekend after 31 January – when the sun rises on a UK that isn’t obviously any different from the day before and people ask themselves what all the fuss was about – the Brexit corpse, still warm, will lumber back into view.
Indeed, this coming year is likely to see as much talk about Brexit as the ones leading up to it, if not more.
Whatever actions might be taken against it, the question of the British relationship with the rest of the continent of Europe will occupy important political time and energy in this parliament.
And, crucially, there is no equivalent of destroying a zombie’s brains: yes, you can walk away from negotiations and try a no-deal approach, but the EU will still be there, waiting for you. The UK will have to have some kind of trade and security relationship with Brussels, whatever the government of Boris Johnson eventually chooses to do.
This might be one of the bigger paradoxes of recent British political history, a period already well-stocked in this regard. For just as the existential questions get bigger, so the issue looks likely to get less and less media and public attention.
One of the realities of the Conservative’s success was that ‘getting Brexit done’ worked as much because people didn’t care about the subject as because they did. Taking a wild guess, colleagues who have been foolish enough to be honest about their profession when asked in social settings will have had a high proportion of people express eye-rolling boredom that we’re still on this one, and frustration with politicians. Simply moving things one, however they are moved one, has a significant constituency.
Clearly, the rest of the system has suffered from inattention these past four years: public services haven’t seen strategic planning; businesses spent more time on stockpiling for multiple cliff-edges than on their long-term interests; citizens (and non-citizens) paused their lives to see how the Brexit process will play out.
And now we do have a moment, a decision, where things are going to be different.
January 31st, 2020 marks the end of first phase of Brexit, the breaking of the old UK-EU relationship. The UK cannot now go back to some approximation of where it once was; re-joining the EU will now be a multi-year process, with the EU able to demand much more of the UK in terms of the old opt-outs.
And withdrawal also marks the nominal discharging of the ‘will of the people’, as the condition of the referendum question has been achieved.
But different does not mean ended.
The deathless body of Brexit is now set to return to our lives as the second part of the process begins – setting up a new UK-EU relationship.
Yes, this will be a lot more technical than before, as multiple streams of negotiation on a wide range of regulatory issues unfurl, but it will be no less political.
The very existence of a transition period – where the UK continues to follow all the rules of the European Union, but without the institutional representation inherent in membership – will highlight the difficulty of finding a new equilibrium. It satisfies neither those who wanted to ‘take back control’, nor those that wanted to remain. Even with the best will in the world, the situation the UK finds itself post-January 31st necessities further changes.
Those changes will go right to the heart of what kind of society the UK wants to be, its role in the world. For unless those questions are considered and answers agreed, then the coming years of Brexit will look a lot like the decades of European policy that have preceded it: listless and driven by crisis-management, rather than any sense of a strategic plan.
While we can all recall that the UK was not the happiest of EU member states during the past 47 years, it is important also not to forget that prior to 1973 the United Kingdom wasn’t at ease with itself outside the European system either.
The chances that this government will be able to find a new national narrative that can command widespread popular buy-in looks small, especially at a time when working across the aisle is not flavour of the month.
The upshot? Time to saddle up for another round of tussling with the Brexit zombie.
Simon Usherwood is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey and a member of the Political Studies Association. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.