Brexit is so many things — a cosmic backlash, revenge against the elites, the last gasp of the rural worker. It’s one of those events that stops you cold and reminds you of the pillars of an international order and the systems that are supposed to keep us all in check. It seems like a violation, as if the world was supposed to keep on humming along but a dedicated few decided to stop it in its tracks. It is a uniquely bureaucratic act, one that is firmly rooted in the soil of the United Kingdom and subject to occasional reveals by those in power who have recognized its political potency. But Brexit is now a reality, and it feels visceral and innately personal, something that will require soul-searching, commitment and responsibility from all parties. Current and future generations of Britons will view this as a reference point by which to judge the positions of the main political parties and their politicians of all stripes. What is perhaps most tragic, however, is that the promises of Brexit will not equal the returns. It will be very hard to reverse course as the world moves ever so quickly in directions that are increasingly out of Britain’s control.
While epic in scope, this final act of Brexit is ultimately an act of human beings with forces that can be controlled at every level from Brussels to London to Dublin to Edinburgh. In this sense, Brexit is neither extraordinary nor special but rather an extraordinarily special predicament devised by a few at the expense of the many. This is, after all, the event that was supposed to ‘take back control’ and leave the UK in the driver’s seat. Instead, Brexit may place the UK in the backseat to history, struggling to see above the clearing to what lies ahead.
While epic in scope, this final act of Brexit is ultimately an act of human beings with forces that can be controlled at every level from Brussels to London to Dublin to Edinburgh.
The UK relishes the chance to be a player in history, to be history. Churchill wanted to witness the D-Day landings from sea and was only dissuaded when he received a stern yet friendly letter from King George VI. In that moment, the great toil of D-Day and a sense of the history and magnitude of the occasion was on full display by those in power. This level of blood, sweat and tears has been notably absent from Westminster over these past few years.
BRITAIN AND EUROPE
The UK has always been a strong nation independent, a global power that does not consider the continent as critical to its success. The UK’s strength on the global stage comes from its unique transatlantic relationship with the United States, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, NATO membership, nuclear weapons, and vestiges of empire in the Commonwealth of Nations from Canada to Singapore. The UK’s strength has rarely come from its European membership but rather its proximity to Europe and the benefits that proximity entails for trade and financial services, as well as its personal diplomatic relations that allowed it to act as a bridge between the United States and Europe. It has been a marriage of convenience. In 2020, the UK is leaving the EU having been less member state and more strategic partner. It is the end of an era that marked an attempt at integration with the continent while simultaneously revealing just how different the priorities and how the deep the fissures were on both sides of the channel.
For the EU, the UK was an awkward partner from the beginning, insisting on a wide range of opt-outs most notably on the single currency and the Schengen area of borderless travel. For the Brexiteers, Europe acted as a straitjacket to the UK’s ambitions, while for the Remainers, Europe offered a bright, multicultural promise of unity that would create a new shared identity. Both sides benefitted tremendously from cultural exchange programs like Erasmus for university students and the ability of workers from Poland, Romania and elsewhere to move to London and for Britons to move across the continent.
In losing the UK, the EU has lost a European member state without a European identity. The UK was instrumental as a military power in modern Europe’s success and liberation from the demons of totalitarianism, nationalism and fascism. Yet the UK’s legitimacy and its authority in these global alliances rests on its own history and merits. The “Global Britain” that Brexiteers and Prime Minister Johnson profess is one that received its global status well before EU membership, and it will not vanish overnight. Now, as the UK leaves the EU, its future will be subject to the whims of a vast array of powerful nations from the US to China and Russia. An independent UK as a superpower during a period of empire is quite different from its present role as a struggling great power neighboring a supranational union. The UK is now a junior partner to both Europe and its former dominions, and autonomous strength is no longer the great virtue by which the UK can engage with the world.
ENTERING THE POST-BREXIT WORLD
Now that the UK has left the EU under the leadership of Prime Minister Johnson, the time for predictions has passed. Sharp reflection is urgently needed as Britain enters into a “post-Brexit phase.” 2016 was a year that rocked the boat and set fire to the notion that rules, process and order matter. Over three years later, it is somewhat clear that they do matter, and a bit of dullness in politics can be a good thing if you are working on important matters of public policy. Unfortunately, there is no trophy for the politician who lacks bombast. But what must happen over time is a silent recognition of the virtue in diligence and strategic thinking. A respect for the desk worker that combs through economic statistics, rather than the campaigner that declares an entire country has had enough of experts.
The events of June 23, 2016 and the many characters who have built their image around the vote will certainly appear in the history books. And that’s good. Where Brexit should not be is in the dustbin of history, nestled among the ideologies and tyrants for which the UK fought so valiantly against in its finest hour. For Brexit is a part of the United Kingdom’s story, existing on a long spectrum that combines the heroics of Dunkirk with the horrors of Amritsar and features the tragedy and grandeur of empire. Brexit should not be sidelined as an aberration. It shall be open to reverence, ridicule and the continuous reassessment that democratic governance and one of the world’s greatest deliberative bodies requires. Ultimately it shall be worthy of a blue plaque that marks a spot where onlookers can gaze at the majesty and dignity of a nation with a blemish that rests alongside an otherwise distinguished record.
Alexander Brotman is a political risk and due diligence analyst with experience writing about European politics and US foreign policy. His current research interests include the rise of populist parties and the role of EU institutions, NATO-Russia relations, and Russian foreign policy pertaining to its near abroad and Eastern Europe. He received his MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh.