Brexit: ‘Take Back Control’?

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tags: Brexit



Simon Head is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, and Director of Programs for the New York Review of Books Foundation. He is the author of "Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans" (2014).

When I was a schoolboy in Britain studying history, one of my classmates asked our teacher to nominate the most incompetent British politician of modern times. Without a moment’s hesitation, he named Lord George Germain, who was from November 1775 until February 1782 the secretary of state for the colonies in the government of Lord North, and so the high official most responsible for the conduct of the War of Independence on the British side. Germain’s hazy knowledge of North American geography, combined with his attempts to micromanage the prosecution of the war from London, contributed heavily to the defeat at Yorktown in 1781, and so to the loss of the war and of the thirteen colonies. But Lord George’s claim to this dubious title is now under serious threat, from not one but four contemporary British politicians.

These make up the quartet responsible for the management of Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union that is mandated by law to take place on March 29, 2019. The damage this quartet is inflicting on Britain—its economy, its foreign relations, the ties between its constituent nations, and, above all, the lives of its people—is on such a scale that it is necessary to reach back to the late eighteenth century to find a similar disaster. The Brexit quartet comprises Prime Minister Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and David Davis (that latter two the secretaries respectively for International Trade and “Exiting the European Union”).

The critical development in Britain’s descent toward chaos has been the collapse of May’s authority after her dismal performance in the general election in June. This was followed by her mishap-prone appearance at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester last week. There, in a Larry David moment, she was completely thrown, mid-speech, by a prankster who managed to reach the speaker’s podium and serve her with the British equivalent of a pink slip. Her fall from grace means Brexit is even more likely to end badly for the British side. 

The UK’s formal proposals for its final Brexit settlement with the EU have not changed since May first revealed them at the 2016 Conservative Party conference, and then elaborated them in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech in London. On the face of it, then, the outcome of the election has had little impact on the British approach to Brexit. But it has changed everything. In her January speech, ahead of the parliamentary vote on Article 50 triggering Britain’s departure from the EU, May announced her intention to withdraw the country from the European single market and the customs union.

But right after announcing these two departures, and in the very same speech, May turned on a dime. She told the assembled EU ambassadors that, following Brexit, she wanted to propel strategic sectors of the UK economy right back into the single market and the customs union, but with one big difference she called her “bespoke” deal. While Britain would still enjoy most of the benefits of membership—“frictionless trade,” in her words—the UK would be largely free of its obligations. So, no free movement of labor between the UK and the EU, no British jurisdiction for the Europe Court of Justice, and no multibillion-pound annual payments by the UK into the EU budget.  ...




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