Britain's Brexit shrug: With historic departure from EU hours away, country calls for leaders to just 'get on with it'
Britain formally exits the European Union on Friday night, casting off from the Continent after nearly half a century and ending a debate that had convulsed the country for more than three years. Yet for all the gravity of the moment, there is a palpable sense of anticlimax.
London: Britain formally exits the European Union on Friday night, casting off from the Continent after nearly half a century and ending a debate that had convulsed the country for more than three years. Yet for all the gravity of the moment, there is a palpable sense of anticlimax.
Now that Britain has finally reached this point of no return — one that millions of Britons had long either dreaded or dreamed of, marched against or eagerly prepared for — the prevailing emotion is neither sadness nor excitement. Rather, it is a characteristically British reflex: Get on with it.
In time, the British are likely to discover that getting on with it isn’t so easy. For the next 11 months, Britain will continue to abide by the EU’s rules and regulations, while it decides what sort of Brexit it wants for itself. That will be hammered out in talks with the bloc’s leaders in Brussels over trade relations — negotiations that could prove as divisive and traumatic as the political fight over the withdrawal.
But that, for now, lies in the future. For most people, nothing will be all that different when the sun rises Saturday morning.
To a great extent, that reflects the endless, enervating nature of the Brexit debate. Since the day Britons narrowly voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the issue has divided families, cast a shadow over businesses, and paralysed the government. Parliament, that venerable symbol of British democracy, became a gladiatorial arena, at once riveting and horrifying to those who tuned in to the daily combat.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised during the recent election to “get Brexit done,” British voters, exhausted and fed up, gave him the largest Conservative Party majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
“Everyone — but everyone — including the most passionate Remainers like me, had a ‘get Brexit done’ corner in our souls,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University, referring to the choice between leaving the EU or remaining in it. “We’ve had three-and-a-half years of this, so we were well into the fourth or fifth stage of grief.”
Mark Malloch Brown, another prominent Remainer and a former No 2 official at the United Nations, said, “Even though it’s not the outcome I wanted, it returns government to its proper place.”
Brexit has already left a deep imprint on the country. Financial firms have moved some of their operations to other European cities, workers from other EU countries have begun leaving, and the fierce national debate over whether, and how, to leave has radically realigned the country’s politics.
Since Johnson’s victory, however, the British have given themselves a kind of holiday from history. Brexit has largely vanished from the front pages, replaced by the saga of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, whose decision to leave Britain seems to fascinate people more than Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
Even the ceremonies to mark the moment speak to the ennui. The government will project a countdown clock on the walls of 10 Downing Street and mount a red, white and blue light show in nearby Whitehall. Brexiteers plan to throw a party in Parliament Square, where the weather forecast calls for rain showers.
But the bell in Big Ben will not ring; the government decided not to ante up the £500,000 ($650,000) necessary to make the bell usable during renovations of the Houses of Parliament.
Even if it had rung, Big Ben would have served only to underscore the attenuated nature of the celebration. Because the EU dictates Britain’s departure, Brexit will be official at the stroke of midnight, Brussels time, which is only 11 pm in London.
Not everybody views Brexit with resignation.
“I don’t think it’s an anticlimax,” said William Shawcross, a writer who works for the government as a special envoy for British victims of terrorism. “I think this is one of the most exciting moments in Britain’s modern history. I am thrilled by it!”
Britain, he said, now had a rare opportunity to improve its society, unshackled from the bureaucracy of Brussels. Going through with Brexit was a crucial vindication of the people’s democratic wishes.
Still, Shawcross said the government had wisely decided to avoid a triumphalist tone in marking the departure.
Johnson has vowed to heal the rifts left by the Brexit debate, and his government has begun taking steps in that direction. The simplest way is to steer public money toward people for whom voting in favor of Brexit was a protest against what they perceived as an economy that had left them behind.
And so the government seems likely to approve a costly high-speed railway project that would connect London with Manchester, Leeds and other cities in northern England.
Voters in the Midlands and north helped fuel Johnson’s election victory. Many of them were traditionally Labour Party supporters, who voted to leave the EU and seethed as Parliament failed to carry out their wishes. The railway, its advocates say, could help reinvigorate those parts of the country.
Yet Johnson will have to reconcile this kind of big-ticket project with the small-government ideology that drives the Brexiteers in his Cabinet. Focussed on free trade and deregulation, their goal is to turn Britain into a nimble free agent in the global economy — Singapore-on-Thames, in the words of the evangelists.
That is a starkly different vision of Britain than that held by the Conservative Party’s new voters in the north. They yearn for a country whose automobile industry and fishing grounds are protected from the ravages of global competition. Johnson, analysts said, hopes to manage that tension by, in effect, giving both what they want: public spending in the north and deregulation in London.
In an excerpt from remarks he plans to deliver Friday evening, Johnson cast Brexit as not just a unifying force, but also a remedy for generations of economic inequity between Britain’s north and south.
“This is the dawn of a new era in which we no longer accept that your life chances — your family’s life chances — should depend on which part of the country you grow up in,” he was scheduled to say. “This is the moment when we begin to unite and level up.”
Critics predict Johnson will have trouble reconciling the buccaneering Britain he wants with the northern voters who swept him to victory.
“By leaving Europe, he is punishing exactly those parts of the country, because it is those parts of the country that will lose residual manufacturing jobs,” said Brown, the former UN official.
Johnson faces a similar dilemma in foreign policy. His ministers speak grandly of a “global Britain,” a respected player with friends on both sides of the Atlantic but free to strike trade deals with anyone.
“There’s a great opportunity for this country to be an even stronger force for good in the world,” said the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, in a briefing with reporters this week. As an example, he cited the next UN climate change summit, which Britain will host in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
Without the leverage of EU membership, however, some analysts said Britain would be a diminished power, overly dependent on its alliance with the US.
Johnson fended off heavy pressure from the Donald Trump administration to bar the Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei, from its broadband network. But with Britain embarking on a trade negotiation with the US, it is not the last time Johnson is likely to face difficult trade-offs.
“Boris Johnson does want to have a global foreign policy,” said Simon Fraser, a former head of the British diplomatic service. “But a lot of this talk of a global Britain is very glib, not very substantial, and needs to be filled out.”
For all of Johnson’s promises of unity, Britain remains a deeply divided country. Many still regard Brexit as a national tragedy.
At Oxford, students marked Britain’s departure from the bloc by launching a website that features interviews of young people, mostly Europeans, in which they were asked to name their most formative, best, and worst European moments. The Brexit referendum vote ranks as the highest-scoring worst moment.
Slightly more than half of those who voted last December backed parties that either opposed Brexit or favored another referendum. How Johnson reaches out to those people will determine whether he is successful in putting the rancour of the past three-and-a-half years behind the country.
Garton Ash, the Oxford professor, said the government could make strides by supporting student-exchange programs between Britain and the EU, adopting an open immigration policy and encouraging freedom of movement.
“The jury is still out on what he’s going to do for the pro-Europe part of the country,” Garton Ash said. “But if he can do a lot on that front, people will gradually and grudgingly accept it.”
Mark Landler c.2020 The New York Times Company
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