By James Ryder
Picture the scene:
January 20, 2017. Washington, DC. U.S. President Donald Trump, just sworn in, turns to cheering well-wishers crowded below him at the Capitol Building.
“I’m resigning. Effective immediately. I have a life to lead.
“My vice president, Mike Pence, is also resigning.
“So House Speaker Paul Ryan, it’s time to get on with getting Mexico to pay for that wall.”
(Trump exits, stage left, by helicopter.)
It’s not a perfect analogy with what happened in Britain in June. The man most responsible for Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — Nigel Farage, the former leader of the far-right UK Independence Party party — was not running for prime minister.
But after the June referendum, a woman who did not campaign for Brexit, Theresa May, did become prime minister. And she’s surrounded by members of parliament who by and large don’t want Brexit, either.
The government is in no particular hurry to leave.
I’m a British national who lives in France. Most French people are a bit sad the UK has voted to leave the EU. But any sadness is tempered by their conviction the UK was never an enthusiastic EU partner and was always demanding special treatment. So, they reckon, like any failed relationship, things may be working out for the best. Maybe we’re better apart.
I disagree. The UK was not just a nuisance — it robustly engaged in the EU project. But that’s irrelevant now. David Cameron failed to manage Conservative Party Euro-skeptics, and Britain has now decided to quit the EU.
Many of my French friends are confused why more than two months after the vote, the infamous Article 50 — the EU exit mechanism — has not been triggered. Many European governments, in fact, are frustrated by the lack of a Brexit timetable.
Article 50 has not been triggered because few Brits genuinely expected the Leave side to win. A referendum campaign lasting 10 weeks is more efficient than a U.S. presidential race, which takes about 18 months. But the problem with British elections is you can speed through the whole process without having a sensible discussion about consequences.
As key players from the Leave camp now acknowledge, their successful battle plan involved repeating slogans over those few weeks and avoiding getting stuck in details. “People only engage in politics for a few minutes every week”, said Matthew Elliott, a key Leave organizer.
As it stands, the government is in no particular hurry to leave and has been slow to signal what it wants — except to say mysteriously that “Brexit means Brexit” and “We are leaving the EU but staying in Europe”.
Some interests are going to lose out.
Many Leave campaigners feel that the free movement of EU citizens to come and work in the UK is the number one problem that needs fixing.
Another category of Leave supporters dislike aspects of the EU but appreciate free trade. They would prefer to stay in Europe’s Single Market and not pay trade tariffs, but also benefit from the lack of “non-tariff” barriers and from the various support networks that it offers. But staying in the Single Market would likely require the UK to allow EU citizens to migrate freely to Britain.
The latest thinking is that the UK will seek a unique agreement, allowing no or low trade tariffs on the goods and services that are most important to the British economy, with some controls on EU immigration.
Such a treaty would likely end most free movement of labor, pleasing hard-line Leave campaigners. But everyone will be lobbying to be treated as a priority in these negotiations. And unless EU negotiators are feeling unusually generous towards Britain, some interests are going to lose out, and not only in the commercial sector.
For example, in recent years scientific research in Britain has benefited from EU funding, with grants now estimated to account for 10 percent of all research work. And it’s not just about money. There’s the ease of collaboration, the ability to lead and coordinate major projects, economies of scale and freedom of movement.
During my PhD studies, I participated in a large-scale scientific research campaign in Malaysia. That project required reams of paperwork to obtain visas and to arrange for the transport of equipment through customs.
By contrast, scientists based in EU countries can move themselves and precious equipment within the block with ease. It gives people more freedom to collaborate and focus on the science itself.
Let’s not forget Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.
In any negotiations with Brussels, every UK sector — financial consultancy, motor manufacturing, education, technology, agricultural, healthcare — will be looking out for their interests. It’s hard to see how all of them will emerge as winners.
Ministers will have to decide where the UK’s national priorities lie. Are we a nation of shopkeepers? Of financial analysts? Car makers? Scientists? Farmers?
Alas, the uncomfortable conclusion could be that changing nothing at all would be the best deal for everyone. But it may not be an option.
There will likely be painful economic trade-offs to control immigration. There are also deep-seated social issues to address in less prosperous and often ignored parts of the country that the referendum campaign brought to light.
And let’s not forget Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar — all of which voted “Remain” by large margins. The UK is a “country of countries,” but the days when England, the largest of the lot, can coerce the others and expect minimal resistance are over.
Quite a lot to deal with for a Government that largely did not want Brexit in the first place. Maybe that Mexican wall would be less problematic.
So now I describe Brexit to French people like this: It’s less a failed relationship and more like an EU house-share. The UK is your awkward roommate who’s just announced they’re moving out to live alone but won’t give notice to the landlord. They’ll leave only when they’ve found a better apartment for less rent than they’re paying now to share. They might be gone in a month, a year or a decade … or perhaps even later?
So don’t make any plans just yet.
James Ryder is a research scientist from southwest England who has been working as a Postdoc for the Laboratory for the Science of Climate and the Environment (LSCE) at Saclay, France, for the past few years. He voted “Remain” in the recent EU Referendum and has been closely following developments since.