Brussels has made clear its belief that Brexit was a mistake. But at this point, a clean break is probably for the best.
With barely a mistake having gone unmade in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, it is perhaps understandable that many observers have allowed their lurid fascination with the chaos in London to obscure the interests of Brussels from their calculations of what may or should happen next. A useful reminder of this slanted perspective came last month following the European Court of Justice’s ruling that Britain could abandon Brexit altogether if it wanted to. It was widely, and somewhat hopefully, reported in the international media that pro-Europeans inside the United Kingdom such as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had been quick to embrace the ruling. Outside Britain, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted that he would be “more than happy” to see an abandonment of Brexit, and Peter Harris noted that the ECJ ruling might provide a way out for Britain, which is currently “undergoing the biggest constitutional emergency since the Abdication Crisis of 1936.”
But by this stage in the game, it is not at all clear whether Brussels does or even should want Britain back in the fold anyway. To be sure, the more idealistic Europhiles would take Britain back in a heartbeat; others regard Brexit as a mistake that Britain will soon want to rectify. The reliably starry eyed Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament, rarely misses an opportunity to predict that Britain will re-join the European Union as soon as the current wave of British politicians is replaced by a younger and allegedly more pro-European generation. But even if younger voters do not become less enthusiastic about the European Union as they mature—and they very well might, given its various problems and flaws—the projected generational shift would still take decades.
As things stand today, the European Union would have to reckon with the following should Brexit be cancelled. First, yet another sledgehammer blow to the European Union’s democratic legitimacy. Having already ridden roughshod over referendum results in France, the Netherlands, and Ireland over the last two decades, it would become harder still to paint the EU as a truly voluntary club were the wishes of the British people, as expressed in the 2016 referendum, simply ignored. It is true that Brussels has found a way to live with inconvenient referendum results in the past, but disrespecting the British people may be a step too far at a time when all across the continent populists are equating Europeanists with neo-authoritarians. Any new referendum with a positive result for Brussels—by no means a certainty anyway—would merely add weight to the view that the EU and its allies will do anything rather than accept a democratic vote they don’t like. In any case, if there is a second referendum supporting EU membership, why shouldn’t Euroskeptics ask for a third to make it the “best of three,” as arch Brexiteer and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox put it? If you think the situation looks chaotic today, just imagine that as a scenario for the next five years.
A second problem comes into focus the moment one starts to imagine how London and Brussels would actually work together again should Brexit be dropped. A clean break in March would at least have the merit of clarity: The European Union would establish diplomatic and trade relations with Britain more or less along the lines it does with everyone else outside the EU. Life for Brussels would be predictable. But if Britain was the awkward squad in Europe even before the 2016 referendum, heaven only knows how much chaos London might bring back into the relationship following a Brexit cancellation. After all, the end of Brexit would not mean the end of the causes of Brexit. To raise just one contentious issue, the migration question would never be off the table. An end to free movement was one of the Brexiteers’ most popular pledges, and British governments would be under permanent pressure to put a stop to it. But as Theresa May’s predecessor David Cameron found out when trying to negotiate with the EU before the referendum, Brussels won’t budge on free movement for its member states because that provision is written into EU treaties. What would transpire, then, would be an endless and bitter row with zero prospect of a resolution. Does Brussels really need that? And it wouldn’t end there: One way or another, every interaction between London and Brussels would be tainted by resentment and mistrust.
Finally, suppose one could make the referendum issue disappear, as if by magic, and further imagine that a manageable, if imperfect, working relationship could somehow be re-established. That still leaves Britain as a parliamentary democracy with a Conservative Party that, if the past is an even halfway reasonable guide to the future, will at some point in the next two or three electoral cycles be returned to power with a decent enough majority to get a Brexit motion through the House of Commons. In the context of so much accumulated anger about the failure to deliver Brexit this time around, any such Tory government would probably be ready to pull the plug on Britain’s EU membership the moment it got into office, and would not feel the need to put the matter to a popular vote on the reasonable grounds that referendums that go the way of the Eurosceptics are never respected anyway. So, if Brexit is most likely to happen regardless, what on earth is the point of dragging this all out only for the same difficult divorce issues to resurface a little further down the road?
There will be many in Brussels today who are rubbing their hands at the chaos in London over Brexit. But they should be careful what they wish for next. What is broken cannot always be mended. There is a point in some failed relationships where it is in everyone’s interests simply to let go.
Robin Shepherd is Senior Advisor to the Halifax International Security Forum, and is the former head of the Europe Programme at Chatham House.