Politics as Usual: A Soft Brexit

As I write this, President Trump is in the United Kingdom concluding talks with Prime Minister May, after having spent some time together in Brussels earlier in the week as a part of the NATO summit. Much has been made of the political standings of the two domestically in light of the events of the past week. I’d like to focus on Theresa May for now.

The tenuous nature of May’s Premiership was put on display a few days ago with the resignation of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. This followed the resignation of David Davis, the now-former Secretary of State of Exiting the European Union, some 24 hours earlier. The departures represent an internal vote of no confidence in May’s handling of Britain’s exit from the EU. The impetus for this rejection came from May’s first concrete Brexit plan, hatched over the weekend, and released yesterday, in full. Earlier in the week, the Financial Times provided a rough summary of what May’s plan entails:

The UK position crucially “evolves” in two ways that would allow for a Norway-style Brexit deal covering at least part of the EU single market.

The first is Britain’s proposal for a “free trade area for goods” involving the UK and the EU that in effect continues existing regulatory and customs arrangements for manufacturing and agricultural products after Brexit. This is achieved by the UK becoming a rule-taker, with a treaty-based commitment to “ongoing harmonisation with EU rules on goods”.

Just as important is Britain’s concession on enforcement. UK courts would pay “due regard” to European rulings in cases relating to EU-set rules. In other words, while Britain is a separate legal jurisdiction after Brexit, the European Court of Justice would be supreme in interpreting the UK-EU goods rule book.

There are caveats — for example the British parliament could veto changes to the rule book if it accepts the “consequences for market access”. But taken together, the safeguards offer no more freedom than Norway enjoys as a member of the European Economic Area.

This has widely been described as a ‘Soft Brexit,’ and thus not a proper Brexit. More generally, the entire Brexit ordeal which has led to this point is incredibly instructive for highlighting the still-vast chasm between what is affectionately dubbed as ‘The People’ and those who they employ to lead them – and even beyond this – the mockery which has been made of the oft-lauded democratic values which are supposed to shape the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

Indeed, the political establishment, comprised of career bureaucrats, most politicians, foreign policy experts and mainstream political pundits did not want Brexit. The previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, the man who put the referendum to vote, did not want Brexit. Nor did President Obama, who was the US president at the time. Big business did not want Brexit. May herself did not back Brexit prior to the vote.

But The People did, and made its collective voice heard on 23 June 2016. Note that this date was over two years ago, yet it is just now that the PM has put forth a wishy washy exit plan that, despite technically removing Britain from the EU, effectively maintains the EU stranglehold by vowing to abide by whatever rulings EU courts come up with.

In other words, May’s version of Brexit says “we’re leaving the EU to stand on our own, but we are going to choose to agree with whatever the EU says in regards to regulations and prior agreements.” It is pure politics as usual. May’s proposal is reminiscent of the various legislations, regulations and even entire government bodies here in the United States which have positive sounding names or acronyms (the Patriot Act, Affordable Care act, Consumer Protection Agency, etc) which signal a bureaucracy doing right by the people, but conceals the much longer fine print which generally betrays them.

These comfy sounding titles also allow politicians to proclaim loudly about all the good they’ve done while simultaneously making very legitimate criticisms extremely difficult.  When ‘consumer protection’ is redefined as ‘public funding for exclusively leftist causes,’ it’s not hard to have concerns. However, all the sophistic bureaucrat has to do is declare “how could one be against Consumer Protection?” and rely on the base persuasion of such a sentence to do the rest in quashing those concerns. After decades of the establishment engaging in this sort of exercise in cloaking failures through language manipulation, the public has grown weary and demanded concrete change.

One great irony of the Soft Brexit proposal is that it is the precise sort of thing that contributed to the victory of the Leave campaign in the first place. For years, EU-related referenda in countries like Ireland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Greece and even France had either been outright ignored by their respective governments or repackaged and presented as new referenda later. In the latter cases, The People were made to vote again until the establishment got what it wanted.

These instances shone a light upon the farce of bureaucratic respect for ‘the will of the people.’ And with a Soft Brexit proposal, the light shines again. As President Trump stated in a post NATO press conference, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ That means any attempt at a deal which maintains the status quo, but is sold as ‘Brexit’ simply because the word itself appears in the header somewhere is in league with the aforementioned referenda in other EU countries. It is indicative of the establishment yet again ignoring the will of the people. Indeed, Trump signaled as much in a much publicized interview with The Sun, when he remarked that should the Soft Brexit idea go through as outlined, it would mean the US couldn’t deal with the UK in a favorable manner.

And rightly so, given that a Soft Brexit is really No Brexit. Prime Minister May can go on all she wants about the 29th of March 2019 being the day that Britain leaves the EU, but if all they’ve really done is to essentially agree to EU rules and regulations, just informally and of their own volition – so as to signal outwardly a maintaining of sovereignty – from the perspective of the US there will be no functional difference. The US would be effectively be trading with an Anglo Division of the EU as opposed to the United Kingdom. That’s all President Trump was really saying.

Given the high profile of the fight, any flouting of Brexit has very serious potential long run consequences. Here, there are parallels with the US election, also in 2016, of Donald Trump. The President, like Brexit, was not favored by the establishment, yet The People did favor him in a democratic election. Much like the British establishment and Brexit, the US establishment has not accepted Trump’s electoral victory, and has sought to neuter the Trump administration through a de-legitimization campaign centered on alleged collusion by the Trump team with the Russian government in order to rig that 2016 election.

This campaign has been waged through a feedback loop of constant disparaging aimed at Trump and his associates by the media, running constant headlines filled with insinuations of this or that nefarious connection to nebulous Russians. These are buttressed by a bureaucratically driven Special Council formally investigating these matters as it relates to the 2016 election, headed by Robert Mueller.

The goal of all of this is to at the very least hang a cloud of shadiness over every action President Trump takes, particularly in the foreign policy realm. In this sense, the foreign policy establishment, which Trump disagrees with at every turn, redefines these disagreements as treason, given its declaration that Trump is really an agent of Russia. Thus, the actions that Trump takes – actions which the voters specifically backed him to do – are to be seen as illegitimate.

At most, the establishment seeks to impeach President Trump on the back of those same disagreements, and seeks to do so through the re-taking of Congress from the Republicans this fall. All in all, the establishment has actively worked to undermine the democratically elected Trump. And as with Brexit, the extent to which the establishment is successful further undermines the rosy textbook idea of the civic role played by The People in a constitutional republic, or indeed in a democratic referendum.

That would lead to a further backlash from The People against the establishment, which would put the latter in a position of needing to exert even more naked aggression in displaying the contempt it has for the former’s wishes. At that point, things would undoubtedly get hairy.

We are at this moment in time because the era of globalism, neoliberalism and neo-conservatism that came before had simply run its course, its severe flaws exposed for all to see. It simply wasn’t working for the masses, and the twin events of Brexit and Trump’s election signified a concrete rejection of that paradigm. We are shifting to a new paradigm, and our betters would do well to accept that. The demise of the old order is inevitable. Better to take it gracefully.