Given the events of the past week, it seems Britain is in a pickle. Even with the UK currently stuck between a rock and a hard place, many might still be convinced that Leave was the right way to vote, but extricating the UK from the European Union without significant side-effects is proving rather more difficult than expected.
But then, the orchestrators of Brexit seem in no particular hurry to set events in motion, nor do they seem to even have a plan – even a very basic, broad strokes one – for how to proceed. That, however, is Britain’s problem now, as the EU is anxious for it to invoke article 50 and begin its departure, relieving everyone from the unnecessary uncertainty that is the current state of affairs.
What Britain has learned is that its departure looks to be a lot less smooth than Farage, Johnson and Gove, to name a few, have made it out to be. Promises were made and walked back, assurances were given which now prove untrue.
The European Union has spent (wasted?) a considerable amount of time negotiating a deal with David Cameron, an outcome and effort that Cameron himself apparently thought so little of as to have it tossed aside in the referendum that he himself promised in order to leverage his re-election.
Leaving aside the ugliness of the campaign leading to the current outcome, Britain now finds itself in an interesting but untenable position.
The EU has invested a lot in trying to keep Britain in the Union – something the British no doubt see differently – and so for this reason and many more it now no longer feels inclined to make any allowances when Britain finally decides to invoke article 50. For possibly the first time ever, the UK will be treated no differently than any other country, it will not get the opt-outs it is so used to injecting into every agreement, it will not get to cherry pick its privileges without committing itself to certain obligations. It will, in other words, have to take or leave what it is offered. If it takes what it can get, the voters at home will be miffed, to say the least. If it doesn’t, the guaranteed access to the common market that Boris Johnson so confidently wrote about simply will not happen. That will result in a whole different set of problems for Britain, chief among them the high likelihood of the dissolution of a formerly United Kingdom with Scotland likely deciding to secede if that is the only way for it to remain in the European Union (recent talks certainly seem to point in that direction), and Northern Ireland exploring its options with Ireland.
If Parliament should decide to walk back the decision and risk the ire of a set of disenfranchised Leave voters, the UK will still have irreparably damaged its relationship with its constituent parts by showing a shocking disregard for, for example, Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement, and the reassurances it gave Scotland at the time of its independence referendum in 2014. It will also have permanently altered its relationship (and not for the better) with the European Union, which seems increasingly disinclined to “take it back” as it were even if it changed its mind, Britain having proven itself such an unreliable partner. In fact, if Nigel Farage is to be taken seriously (a subject for a separate discussion in itself) Britain’s membership in the EU has been something of a Trojan horse. Yes, Minister was supposed to be a satirical comedy show; Farage seems to have taken it, stripped it of its humour, injected it with malice and applied it to his presence in the European Parliament.
And so, after a protest vote in an ill-advised referendum, Britain seems to have little to no room to move and not really anywhere to go. The climate inside its borders, newly accentuated, is hostile and tense. Brexit was a rash decision, made on the basis of tenuous arguments, misinformation and false promises. I imagine there are quite a few people who wish they could take all this hindsight and turn back time on this tangled mess. If only Doctor Who were real.