The Beginning of Brexit

Boris Johnson may soon regret having gotten what he wanted.

As Boris Johnson stepped up to the podium on Friday, December 13, he paused momentarily.

What may have gone through his mind is anyone’s guess: He may have thought back to his school days at Eton College; one of his classmates was another Prime Minister, David Cameron, who started the United Kingdom’s long road toward exiting the European Union. Or maybe he thought back to the moment last year when he categorically stated that he would never be the British premier: “I’ve got more chance of being reincarnated as an olive.” How times have changed.

Maybe—and hopefully—Johnson thought about something far more important: What’s next? The debate, after all, is now over. Following last Friday’s vote in the Houses of Parliament, Brexit will really happen. With the deal approved, Johnson will confirm to the European Union that the UK will leave on January 31. In other words, he will begin his premiership by finally getting what his Eurosceptic supporters have long wanted—and what he promised to “die in a ditch” to deliver.

But it won’t be simple. That is merely the beginning of a long and arduous process. For one, Johnson promised voters he would seek to renegotiate better trade terms with the EU once Brexit was complete. That will not come easy. There will be three key political questions that will have to be answered as well.

Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom will be fiercely contested. As a Scotsman myself, Independence does seem an attractive option. (I consider myself an EU national above all else, and Scotland separating itself from the UK could be the best way for me to become an EU citizen once more).

Still, there are multiple holes in the argument that Scotland should seek independence from the UK to join the EU. For starters, there is no guarantee that Scotland would be welcomed back. Spain may well veto Scotland joining to stave off fresh attempts for Catalonian Independence. What’s more, it’s highly unlikely Scotland would meet the various financial and policy criteria the EU requires for members. Not to mention, the mandate from the Scottish people is not fully there—only 46 percent of the Scottish electorate voted for nationalist parties last year, up just 1 percent from the Independence Referendum in 2014. But the greatest Independence obstacle is none other than Boris Johnson. He has categorically ruled out allowing another a referendum for the duration of his tenure.

The second major issue concerns the fate of the left. The Labour Party will face some major existential questions following an abysmal result in this month’s election. It has been 80 years since the party suffered such a shocking defeat, losing seats which had been Labour strongholds for more than a century. Labour’s stance on Brexit was neutral—at no point did Jeremy Corbyn state whether he was in favor of remaining or leaving the EU. Indeed, that was the official party line. Members of Parliament would have their own individual preference—the majority were, in fact, remainers—but they had to stand on a ticket of neutrality. But Corbyn proved to be more unpopular than any of their stances on Brexit. Many of his policy ideas, such as free universal high-speed WiFi, universal free dental checkups, and the banning of all private schools, were considered wishful at best and ill-thought through. Perhaps his greatest failure was a lame response to the numerous anti-Semitism allegations made against him and close allies in the party.

The Labour Party must now regroup. It will need to find a new identity in a post-Brexit world. Otherwise, it stands to become relegated to irrelevance much in the same way Israel’s Labor Party has descended over the last 15 years

Early in the new year, Corbyn will step down from his role as Labour leader. That will begin the battle for the new soul of the party. Hard-left candidates like the Corbyn allies Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis are amassing support already. Both are also senior officials in Corbyn’s leadership team. Other more centrist candidates have been cautious about putting themselves forward. So far, only Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has entered the fray, while it is expected that Brexit-backing Lisa Nandy and remain-stalwart Yvette Cooper will both vie for leadership, too. The real joker card, however, will be Sir Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer and the Shadow Brexit Secretary, should he choose to enter the race. In Corbyn’s shadow cabinet he was considered to be the bridge between centrists and left-wing MPs. He is rumored to be the candidate Johnson would fear the most.

Yet whoever the party members choose, the utmost priority should be to end the infighting that has weakened the British left and enabled the rise of Brexiteers in the first place.

Finally, and probably most importantly, Johnson must also come up with an answer for the issue of the Irish Border. Get that wrong and we could see a return to The Troubles. The prime minister’s current plan requires check points between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which is deeply unpopular among unionists, who want one united country with no soft borders with the EU. At the same time, not having a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was an red line for the EU during negotiations—a condition to which Johnson agreed. Johnson is in a precarious situation. His electorate wants one thing, but the European Union, Ireland, and Northern Ireland all want something else.

The other problem is that there is no clear map of where the exact border should go. The official border has never been drawn out, meaning that there are multiple landowners with land that will be split in half. The line could go directly through homes, villages, and streets.

There are other questions to be resolved, too. Will there be a gap between the two nations with a neutral zone? And, of course, who will pay for the border? Both the UK and the EU have, unsurprisingly, failed to find common ground. The EU insists that the bulk of the expense should be on the UK, since it’s the UK that wants the border in the first place. But paying for brand new buildings, new staff to police the border 24 hours a day, new checkpoints, and other facilities will add up quickly, and it does not appear that Johnson’s government is planning to allocate any funds in a future budget for a border.

But Johnson will need to prioritize this issue over all others. If he gets the border plan wrong, there could be violence. Irish Republicans would not take kindly to having the North cut away with a border while Ulster Unionists would have similar sentiments should the border remain between Northern Ireland and the UK. Johnson and his government will be responsible for any bloodshed.

Nevertheless, the argument the United Kingdom has been having with itself over the last four years is over. Brexit will happen. But how it will happen and what happens next remains anyone’s guess. Johnson will face huge dilemmas as he tries to ensure his plan does not result in chaos. At the moment, he is basking in his victory, but he is still in a precarious situation. The UK is fractured to the point that it may never fully heal as a whole. So while the Brexit debate is over, the real journey of Brexit has only just begun.

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Thomas Danielian

Thomas Danielian is a writer based in London.