The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has been postponed yet again, this time until the end of January. Although Parliament approved the legislation for executing Brexit based on an agreement brokered between the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU’s executive committee, the European Council, it refused to fast-track the legislation by the late October deadline that Johnson had promised. A general election will take place in Britain next Thursday to break the stalemate.
The new agreement brokered by Johnson had stipulated that 1) after a period of transition, the U.K. would leave the European customs union; 2) only in Northern Ireland would the regulation of products and agricultural goods remain aligned with the EU; and 3) customs inspections of goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the U.K. “mainland” would continue until the conclusion of a free trade agreement between the U.K. and the EU.
The Brexit vote laid bare the very essence of populist politics.
First, it demonstrated that calling a national referendum is an incredibly dangerous wager.
A referendum may yield a decision that shapes the very fate of the nation, but this decision cannot be enacted into law by Parliament. No matter how many options for exiting the EU the previous government of Prime Minister Theresa May brought before Parliament, it could not win the majority support needed to secure the passage of Brexit legislation.
Moreover, the result of a referendum is all the more difficult to implement when the vote is close. In the case of Brexit, 52 percent of voters supported leaving the EU while 48 percent voted to remain. Such a narrow margin can rally the “remain” camp, which senses the outcome could still be reversed if they redouble their efforts. Meanwhile, the fear of a fresh vote hardens the resolve of the “leave” camp, which is determined to exit at any cost.
Thus, the standoff between equally matched camps may solidify into a deep rupture in the national fabric.
The showdown over Brexit has also created divisions within each of the major parties and rendered traditional party governance ineffective.
Backed by traditional support bases and interest groups, political parties — and the underlying two party-dominant political structure — are undergoing a massive transformation. Amid such trends as the decline of manufacturing, the development of tech industries, globalization and climate change, topics such as immigration, refugees, the environment and national identity have become major points of debate that have divided opinion within both the Conservative and Labour parties.
The Brexit vote has further complicated party governance at an already trying time. Facing a challenge from the hard-right, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party (UKIP, now the Brexit Party), the Conservative Party has made a defensive move to the right, further exacerbating internal divisions.
It seems as if democracy has lost the ethos and etiquette required to practice politics in its most profound sense.
Following the death of Winston Churchill in 1965, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson delivered a speech to Parliament in which he recalled Churchill in the following terms:
“A great parliamentarian, but never a tame one — they misjudge him who could even begin to think of him as a party operator, or a manipulator, or a trimmer, or a party hack. He was a warrior, and party debate was war; it mattered, and he brought to that war the conquering weapon of words fashioned for their purpose; to wound, never to kill; to influence, never to destroy.”
Parliamentarians never kill their political opponents. They never destroy them. Wilson’s words reflect the fact that, while he led the principal rival to Churchill’s party, as a fellow parliamentarian he deeply understood and esteemed Churchill’s style of politics and leadership. Churchill was indeed extraordinary, but it was the broad-minded nature of British democracy that made him so.
There is also the problem of Ireland. The Brexit deadlock is a fresh reminder that the Irish problem, the product of British colonialism, is not yet a thing of the past.
There is a 500-kilometer border between British-controlled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member state. The question of how to handle this border has precipitated a collision between fundamentally opposing principles. The U.K. has pushed to re-establish the border, while the EU says it should control the border. Ireland, meanwhile, refuses to recognize any border across the island.
The biggest hurdle has been the question of the U.K. border with Ireland. The withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU by the May government called for the U.K. to remain within the customs union and create a backstop with Northern Ireland that would not include a physical border. It was this “backstop” arrangement that was recently amended by Johnson, whose changes effectively “detach” Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. This agreement would also allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to re-evaluate every four years whether to continue in regulatory alignment with the EU. In the future, circumstances could prompt a Northern Irish referendum on unification with Ireland.
Between 1921 and 1974, the respective leaders of the U.K. and Ireland failed to make a single state visit to the other country. After both nations joined the European Economic Community in 1973, such state visits became regularized, eventually creating a new and more equal relationship between the two countries. Brexit has the potential to instantly destroy this hard-won relationship.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.