By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
UK Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, December 11, a day after she chose to cancel a vote in Parliament on her Brexit deal. May sought to paper over the looming train wreck that Brexit has become as she claimed that the EU was actually expressing “shared determination” to help back her deal.
When you’re making a deal and the people on the other side of the table, who you are supposedly negotiating with, seek to help you, it is because you have failed at making a deal and you are actually making their deal, the deal your adversaries want. May has been outwitted and outplayed from the very beginning of negotiations but because she is a failed leader she refuses to acknowledge, take responsibility, or even see what has happened. The real story on December 11, after the chaos in Parliament and with EU leaders looking on with glee as the UK can’t get its house in order, is the headline “no renegotiation on Brexit, EU leaders tell May.” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk had already ruled out more negotiations.
The Brexit vote took place on June 23, 2016. For two years the UK has supposedly negotiated its plan to leave. In fact the UK has done nothing of the sort and May sought to conceal the reality of failure over the last two years to achieve anything. To understand this we need to go back in history a bit. The UK voted to leave by 52% to 48%, with more than a million of the 46 million voters choosing to leave than chose to remain. The Brexit referendum came two years after the Scottish referendum had failed 44% to 55%. The Scottish referendum seemed to set the stage for Brexit. But something changed over the those years. People decided to throw caution to the winds. It was part of a global surge in what some call “populism” but also a search for change from the status quo. Conservative party leader David Cameron was the status quo. Labour party leader Ed Miliband was the status quo. It is no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn had come to lead Labour in September 2015, a year after the Scottish referendum. Something else happened as well. The election in May 2015 saw the Scottish National Party obliterate Labour in Scotland. All but three of Scotland’s 59 seats went to the SNP. This shows that British politics was entering a period of uncertainty between 2014 and 2016, experimenting with radicalism. First came the SNP victory and then Corbyn. Then came Brexit. The Corbyn victory has connections to Brexit because he and his many of his supporters have not been outspoken about remaining in the EU and some support leaving. A look at the map of Brexit votes and Corbyn supporters has interesting parallels.
After the Brexit vote, Prime Minister Cameron resigned and May (who had been Home Secretary from 2010-2016) became Conservative leader in July 2016 and took the reins of government. Her first statement as Prime Minister buried the Brexit issue at the end. It was the most momentous reason for her rise to power and she was supposed to have her hand on the tiller. Yet she chose to discuss being a “white, working-class boy” before she discussed leaving the European Union. “We will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world,” she said “as we leave the European Union.” As we leave? How about explaining how she intended to do that? What were the important parts of that process? What did she want to safeguard? From the moment she took power, May sought to downplay and keep silent about the process. She hadn’t supported Brexit before and she wasn’t enthusiastic about it. It is no surprise that after two years she led the country to near disaster through smoke and mirrors and unwillingness to take responsibility. She triggered article 50 to leave the EU in March 2017, giving herself two years to deal with negotiations.
May chose to go to elections in 2017 and led her party to near defeat. Labour gained 30 seats and the Conservatives lost 13 in the June 2017 election. May had wanted to “strengthen her hand” in Brexit negotiations. Instead she weakened it. The SNP also wanted to hold a second referendum but May wanted to postpone that until after Brexit negotiations.
For a year May’s government dithered on negotiations. Early signs of trouble came in June 2017 when she had to fight off discussion of Parliament having a “meaningful vote” on Brexit if it looked like the UK would leave the EU without a deal. It foreshadowed worse to come as May and her government sought to push off any real discussion of Brexit, leaving the Commons in the dark.
In July 2018 it began to unravel. Boris Johnson quit as foreign secretary, claiming that May’s Brexit plans would leave the UK with the “status of a colony.” Brexit Secretary David Davis also resigned along with Steve Baker, his deputy. This first round of resignations came after May had “hammered out a compromise” at Chequers. Donald Tusk mocked the UK and May’s government, calling Brexit a “mess” and hoping the idea of it would “leave with Davis and Johnson.” Clearly May’s real problem was selling her idea of a deal to her own party, not the EU. She didn’t even seem to believe in Brexit, having originally opposed it. The Johnson and Davis resignations began a rush for the door as a half dozen other MPs resigned in July.
But worse was to come. On November 9 Transport Minister Jo Johnson quit, saying the UK should have another referendum. “To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.” When May was elected to lead the Conservative party she had been compared to the “second” Margaret Thatcher. By November 2018 it appeared this was all a charade.
In mid-November both Dominic Raab and Esther McVey resigned. Raab had taken over as Brexit Secretary from Davis. McVey felt that May’s opaque deal did not “honour” the result of the referendum. “We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal, to any deal is better than no deal.” Raab said he couldn’t support the deal “in good conscience” and Suella Braverman, who also resigned, said that the deal was a “betrayal.” Johnson had been worried about the UK’s ability to make trade deals outside the EU when he left. Raab focused on the Northern Ireland border and the “backstop arrangement,” which he said was a “threat to the integrity of the UK.” It appeared the negotiated deal would mean that the UK wouldn’t be fully outside the customs of the EU and would have single market obligations. “No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied.” It appears that May had quietly negotiated a disaster in an attempt to get anything she could. With the EU feeling it held all the cards, and wanting to send a message to other nations that might opt to leave, they didn’t budge in negotiations. They knew that May needed the EU to agree more than the EU needed to.
“No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied.” – Dominic Raab
May had sought to concentrate power in her own hands on how to deal with Brexit since being elected in 2016. In January 2017 judges ruled that the government would have to consult parliament about triggering article 50. But May never internalized this need to consult even her own party. The negotiations were always flawed and the EU was able to outwit the UK at every opportunity, with May seemingly having to spend more time convincing her own party’s rebels than the EU, which she was begging to accept her deal to keep her afloat. In a November 26 document the attorney general Geoffrey Cox had warned May’s government about the backstop agreement and noted that the UK “would conform to EU customs rules” if it entered this deal. It would be a “practical barrier to the UK entering separate trade agreements on goods with third countries.” This is what Johnson had been concerned about in July, but nothing had changed from July to November. May, who seemed to never listen to anyone in her government, had ignored the problem. By December the Commons wanted to know the full details of the legal advice about Brexit. On December 4, but a vote of 311 to 293, May lost a crucial vote and the government was forced to reveal the confidential legal advice. The government was held in “contempt” of parliament, a humiliating defeat. The action was unprecedented. But as usual, May took it in stride. Pushing ahead with an increasingly flawed deal as disaster unfolded.
Already the pro-Brexit MPs understood that they too had been outplayed. “The alternatives are no deal or no Brexit,” Michael Gove admitted on December 3. Conservatives began to wonder if May shouldn’t be pushed out altogether. Surveys in the UK also showed the support for Brexit was weakening. After two years of being kept in the dark people were coming to realize the government was misleading them and that there would be consequences.
The larger context of May’s failure is the overall failure of leaders in western democracies to respond to the public. In France the Yellow Vest protests had shown Emmanuel Macron flip-flop on new policies. But these protests were not just about Macron, they were about feelings that the government was unresponsive. They, like Brexit and other earthquakes, were dismissed as populism. But the blame cannot always be put at the foot of “populism” and dismissed as some upraising of ignorant masses. These are democracies, primarily moderate and stable democracies from the UK to the US that have tended to not opt for extremism. They have been increasingly extreme as the public seeks answers for increasing inequality, wage stagnation and issues such as unemployment or immigration. Dismissed too easily as “racists,” on the left or right, those who are voting for more radical candidates do so out of desires for change in the status quo. But May’s government was emblematic of the way in which western democratic leaders increasingly isolate themselves from the need to respond to critique. For May the Brexit deal was never serious and neither were the negotiations. She meandered on and her government never bothered to share the real difficulties with voters. There was never a real discussion in the UK, a democracy, about different aspects of Brexit. Instead there was shadowy negotiations in which the EU sought to punish the UK and in which the EU sought to persuade the UK leadership to change course through hard bargaining. Eventually the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could reverse court on Brexit. May chose to keep going forward with the “process.” It appears the EU negotiators know more about the details of the agreement than the public in the UK does. Had the UK entered the process with an informed public and informed parliament it might have been better equipped to negotiate.
May’s government was emblematic of the way in which western democratic leaders increasingly isolate themselves from the need to respond to critique.
Is it because May is a bad politician, a bad negotiator or a charlatan? It’s not clear what hides behind the confidence. One might congratulate her for somehow ostensibly standing against both the Brexit “hardliners” and her political adversaries in Labour. However, Labour has never really opposed Brexit under its current leadership. It has simply said the UK needs a good deal. Isn’t that what May claimed as well? And isn’t it what the “hardliners” wanted? So if everyone sort of wanted the same thing why is May always going it alone to the EU to face off and deal with the continent on her own while parliament looks on in bewilderment.
Extraordinarily the headlines in the UK continue to warn about banking crises and long lines at borders, as well as a variety of other post-apocalyptic futures. But given the fact all this was known back in 2016 and known in March 2017 when article 50 was triggered, then how is it possible that the UK didn’t prepare itself for this moment. How come it didn’t begin to phase in the changes that would take place. Isn’t that what a modern and reasonable democracy should do? Shouldn’t it inform and prepare the public. Back when May took office she spoke about “as we leave the European Union.” As. A process. Yet, where is the process? Why is it always a crises. Why is it that just months before the supposed date there is no deal, no clarity, no plan for new elections or a new referendum and everything is as up-in-the-air as the day after the UK voted to leave? How is that possible? “Our country deserves better,” said Corbyn on December. He rightly said that May “plowed ahead” and ran away to Brussels. “So she’ll bring back the same botched deal that works for no one…She needs to step aside.”
Corbyn, the “extremist,” sounds reasonable and right. May, the “new Margaret Thatcher” looks like the opposite. This is because there are no more new Ronald Reagans and Thatchers, no more Churchills and Lincolns. Western democracies are searching for a mythical past rather than confronting the future. Many of these countries have an entrenched status quo and establishments that seem disinterested in listening. They talk about “centrism” like it’s some kind of ideology, but what they tend to mean is they have no ideology and no real answers besides tinkering with systems that are increasingly unable to handle change. They don’t have ideas or goals, vision or concepts for the 21st century, they are providing answers from the last century built on decaying ideologies that may have won the Cold War, but have been unable to win the peace. These ideologies promised peace and prosperity alongside neo-liberal democracies and globalization. But they’ve not delivered on these promises. Organizations like the EU had a good underpinning but they never grappled with difficult questions, such as external borders and migration. They passed the buck from one country to another, and then wondered why, little by little, the extreme right and extreme left began to emerge again.
It’s already 2018, 100 years since the end of the Great War. That was a war that shaped the 20th century. It ended with the rise of Communism in Russia, a radical and deadly experiment, and immediately sowed the seeds for the rise of Fascism. Karl Liebknech had declared the “free socialist republic” of Berlin in November 1918, Eugene Levine proclaimed the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, and Bela Kun came to power in the Hungarian Soviet Republic the same year. Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922. People forget today that fascism didn’t arrive in the 1930s, it wasn’t like some other era after the end of the Great War, it was a direct result. The Beer Hall Putsch was in 1923. By 1933 Hitler was in power and the Spanish Civil War was about to begin.
We are 100 years from those cataclysms and the rise of the Cold War. Our lifetimes have also been shaped by some rapid changes, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the brief peace of the 1990s, the era of the walk in the clouds of naivety. How quickly authoritarian regimes have risen up and how quickly has the dream of freedom provided by the internet been swallowed up by concentration in the hands of several corporations which, at the click of a button, can decide what billions of people will see tomorrow on their phones and computers. Globalization made us interconnected and made it possible to influence us more rapidly. And yet, with all this, publics in places like the UK are still left in the dark, and leaders in the EU still prefer that people don’t ask too many questions about where the EU is going. Opaque structures make these systems unresponsive. But protesters taking out their wrath in places like France are too easily dismissed as riff-raff, not as if they have a reason to be angry. A declining tradition of journalism also leads to less articles trying to articulate these demands. It is for that reason that we see so few articles that really explain Brexit or what May’s government has been up to.
May was outplayed by the EU. But her treading water for two years since Brexit and the train wreck the blundered into is symbolic of the overall malaise of democracies in the West. They wonder why they are victims of totalitarian regimes and “fake news.” It’s because they don’t even bother to tell their own public what is going on. The public doesn’t rush to consume fake news, but disinformation will fill the void and vacuum left by governments that are not responsive.