The Only Way Out of This Brexit Mess

Shortly after Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation on May 24, an unnamed former British “cabinet minister” levelled with Foreign Policy’s Owen Matthews:

“The [Conservative Party] membership are all Brexiteers. The next leader has to be a hard Brexiteer. But it’s totally obvious that nobody is going to get a different deal [from Brussels] to the one that May’s already got.” All of May’s likely successors as Conservative leader and prime minister are promising a new deal with the EU that’s “somehow keeps all the advantages of membership without the pain … That’s simply undeliverable,” the former minister said. “It’s fantasy unicorns. And when it doesn’t happen, the voters will just crucify us.”

The European Council, which is made up of the heads of state of EU member countries, has already said there won’t be any renegotiation of the Brexit deal that May negotiated and presented to Parliament three times to no avail. The Council appears certain that the next UK prime minister will also balk at leaving the EU with no deal. May was unwilling to do it, and the Council was happy, for the most part, to provide repeated extensions to the Brexit deadline. After the most recent extension in April, which pushed the deadline to October 31, Council President Donald Tusk said the goal of the extension is to give time for the UK to “cancel Brexit altogether.”

Tusk actually wanted to give a substantially longer extension, as did every member of the Council except one: French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron has publicly said that he fears the UK’s continued membership would harm EU institutions and legitimacy. What he doesn’t say is that an unending Brexit hurts him politically at home, where he’s struggling to contain a reconstituted far-right party led by Marine Le Pen.

The other EU leaders are unimpressed with Macron’s position, but last weekend’s European Parliament elections justify, in part, both Macron and his counterparts. Right-wing parties across Europe gained seats, but Tusk was quick to point out that none of them ran on platform that explicitly called for leaving the EU. Instead, their rhetoric was focused on reforming the EU “from within” and transferring some power back to national governments. Tusk believes that Brexit has acted as a vaccine against the illusions of grandeur that animated other “exit” campaigns.

Despite Tusk’s confidence, it’s not obvious if the UK will be able to self-innoculate: Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party (a scrappy reconstitution of the UK Independence Party, which led the 2016 “leave” campaign) won a whopping 29 MEP seats out of the 73 allocated to the UK, a final disaster for Theresa May and the Conservative Party, which won only 4 seats.

Then again, there’s an interesting possibility that the influx of “reformist” Euroskeptics may change the EU (or at least appear to change the EU) in such a way that current Brexiters may be willing to temper their stance. As the nameless former cabinet official said, leaving the EU while maintaining the benefits of membership is undeliverable. The next prime minister will run on a “hard Brexit or bust” platform. The way out of this predicament—and out of actually having to pull the trigger on a hard Brexit—may actually be through a European Parliament dominated by reactionaries who want to practicably achieve what Brexiters really want. It might take a boorish PM (hint, his name rhymes with Joris Bohnson) who has enough Brexiter street cred to convince them that the EU is changing into something worth being a part of.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.