Font size:
Ansicht Home:

May's Brexit Debacle

Britain Finally Confronts Reality

Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal has been rejected by parliament, it is time for the European Union to concentrate on preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Because a deal with the UK is not currently possible.


Westminster Bridge

A Commentary By
Thursday, 1/17/2019   10:22 AM

You have to give Theresa May credit where credit is due: She is a master at keeping her composure. No matter how badly she fails, no matter how brutal she is attacked by the opposition, the British prime minister never seems to lose her composure. Not even at the moment of what is likely her worst defeat yet, the crushing rejection of the European Union withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons.

It's almost enough to leave one feeling sorry for her. Almost. Because May made a conscious and fatal decision right at the very beginning of the Brexit process: She decided to deceive the British people rather than to be honest with them. And that even though honesty would have been easier for May than for other politicians. Whereas a Nigel Farage or a Boris Johnson agitated for withdrawing from the EU with half-truths and blatant lies, May actively opposed Brexit. After the referendum, she could have clearly told the voters what their Brexit vote really meant: hard choices.

Adopting the Brexiteer Strategy

She could have explained that a continued close relationship with the EU would mean having to accept many rules and decisions from Brussels without having a seat at the negotiating table. Or, if Britain were to opt for a greater degree of freedom, the consequence would be economic disadvantages. And she could have sent a reckless political hothead like Johnson to where he belongs: oblivion.

Instead, she appointed Johnson as foreign secretary and adopted his strategy of acting as though the United Kingdom could somehow have it all: full control over immigration, complete freedom to establish trade agreements with countries around the world and all the advantages of the EU membership they were giving up. And there would, of course, be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, even if there is still nobody who has a clue how such a thing might be possible once the UK leaves the customs union.

The opposition isn't much better. Early on, Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn committed himself to a position whereby the only Brexit deal he could accept was one that granted the UK the exact same advantages as EU membership. That was so obviously impossible from the very beginning that it is akin to sabotaging democracy. Corbyn still hasn't presented a clear vision for the future of a United Kingdom outside of the European Union.

It was always clear that a confrontation with reality was inevitable, and that has now taken place in the form of May's House of Commons defeat. She is primarily to blame for the fact that this confrontation took place so late in the game. Now, there is little time left to prevent a chaotic Brexit without a deal. The actual date of departure could, of course, be extended slightly, but only by a few weeks at the most. Otherwise, a conflict with the elections for the European Parliament would be the result, which would have bizarre, and perhaps dangerous, consequences for the rest of the EU.

And why should the EU even consider such a thing? After all, there is absolutely nothing at the moment indicating that Britain might suddenly come to its senses. Because the central problem remains: British politics is still not prepared to accept the consequences of the Brexit decision, a state of affairs which makes it impossible for them to know what they actually want from the EU.

International Newsletter: Sign up for our newsletter -- and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.

That's why it doesn't make much sense to demand concessions from the rest of the EU. On the one hand, it is unclear what concession from Brussels might increase the chances of an agreement in parliament in London. On the other, it is questionable whether such an agreement would be possible in the first place.

Preparing for the Worst

We shouldn't kid ourselves: One group of British MPs is made up of fundamentalists who are pursuing Brexit with an almost religious fervor. There is no realistic form of leaving the EU that would ever satisfy them and appeals to reason are unlikely to move them. You might as well try to convince creationists of the Theory of Evolution using scientific essays.

To be sure, such politicians only represent a minority in the House of Commons, but that minority is large enough to torpedo any agreement. Meanwhile, the majority of Brexit-skeptical MPs are unable to find consensus without dividing their own parties and risking the fury of the voters who have been goaded on by the pro-Brexit press.

It could very well be that Britain must first endure the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit to find themselves again. The tragedy of such an eventuality, however, is that the consequences would not be borne by the elite Brexiteers who claim to stand in opposition to the political elite -- but by the voters who they lied to.

A no-deal Brexit would be expensive for the rest of the EU as well. That is why it would be advisable for the other 27 EU member states to begin focusing all their energies on preventing the worst with a series of individual agreements with the UK. And to hope that the British will one day return to the common sense for which they were once so admired.

Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links


All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission