Britain Is Finally Leaving the EU. That’s Where the Debate Begins.

By Oliver Wiseman

In 2016, Britain voted for Brexit. On Friday—four years, three prime ministers and two general elections later—the country will leave the European Union. Officially stepping out into the world is a major moment for a country that has driven itself mad on the tortuous path to the exit door. And yet, even the buildup to this historic event typified the silliest aspects of the years between the “leave” vote and the actual leaving.

Two quarrels about how Britain would mark the occasion broke out in recent weeks, one about a bell, the other about a coin. First came the fuss about whether Big Ben would ring out to mark the moment of independence. This Brexiteer wish was complicated by the fact that the bell, and the tower that houses it, are undergoing renovations, meaning a single bong would come with a $700,000 price tag. After Parliament refused to fund the move, and an online fundraising campaign failed to fill the gap, there will be no Big Ben bongs. “If Big Ben doesn’t bong, the world will see us as a joke,” lamented Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.

A second brouhaha broke out over a commemorative 50 pence coin issued to mark the occasion. The coins, which read, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations,” soon drew the ire of disbelieving Remainers. Otherwise serious and self-respecting members of the British establishment said they would refuse to use the coins or would deface any that came into their possession. (The novelist Philip Pullman also complained that the coin “is missing an Oxford comma and should be boycotted by all literate people.”)

Britain’s talent for turning these trivial rows into front-page stories illustrates how much the Brexit debate has become a negative-sum culture war, with Leavers and Remainers each compelled to take a side. Yet these dust-ups also obscure some of the more interesting, and important, divides over what Britain does with its newfound freedom. So far, much of the conversation has been backward looking, focused on whether the country would give effect to the 2016 vote with a viable version of Brexit, or whether that vote should be ignored. As Britain leaves the EU, and finally casts an eye forward, there are as many disputes as ever, with global implications, and the fault lines are more complicated than just Leave vs. Remain.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson triumphed in last month’s election with a promise to “get Brexit done,” his opponents argued that after the sun rises on February 1, Britain’s future relationship with the EU, and a host of related questions, would remain unresolved. In a narrow sense, that claim is irrefutable. But it also misses the bigger picture.

The case for Brexit was built on possibilities. Among other things, exiting the EU allows Britain to decide for itself what trade relationships it should pursue with the rest of the world, the criteria it should set for its immigration system and how to regulate a host of areas that have been the competence of the EU for decades. These are big, difficult decisions in and of themselves. They aren’t part of a Brexit process that will ever be finished. Britain will not one day declare mission accomplished and no longer give any thought to, for example, trade policy—something that, as Americans will know, is an ongoing consideration in the politics of sovereign countries.

Understand that fact, and the divide between Leave and Remain starts to look less significant. On trade, for example, there is a split among Leavers. An image of buccaneering “Global Britain” striking trade deals with fast-growing economies around the world was a big part of the case pro-Brexit politicians made. There is little enthusiasm for this vision among Leave voters. According to one poll, Leave voters were more likely to support protectionist trade policies than Remainers. In fact, whether someone voted Leave was the single best predictor of a person’s support for barriers to trade. Politicians eager to use Brexit as an opportunity for liberalizing UK trade will have to think carefully about which voters they can rely on.

The prospects of a much-hyped bilateral UK-U.S. trade deal—which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said he hopes will be signed “this year”—depend on a range of concessions that are highly unpopular with both Leave and Remain voters. From pharmaceutical pricing to GMOs, there are a number of deregulatory steps Britain would need to take to reach a deal with the United States—steps the British public is likely to see as an unacceptable lowering of standards and that very few government ministers appear willing to defend. Suspicion of a closer economic relationship with the U.S. is widespread among Brits. Largely bogus warnings about Britain’s National Health Service being “sold” to American firms was a major theme in last month’s election. The safety of chlorinated chicken (which is permitted in the United States but not the EU) has become another unlikely flashpoint. The British government is also reluctant to acknowledge the trade-offs inherent in making decisions about these kinds of matters, insisting they want the closest possible partnership with the EU while being able to diverge sufficiently to cut deals with other countries. That balancing act might prove impossible.

More generally, many conservative thinkers and politicians, including senior Cabinet ministers like Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, saw a departure from the EU as an opportunity to pursue economic liberalization and deregulation on a range of fronts, something that was soon derided by the Labour Party as a desire to build “Singapore-on-Thames.” Today, that agenda feels a long way away. There is next to no enthusiasm for it among the public—Leave or Remain. And, so far, the domestic policy made possible by Brexit that Johnson’s government has shouted the loudest about is industrial subsidies to prop up British businesses; this kind of left-wing measure was not exactly what the Euroskeptics had in mind when Brexit was a far-off dream years ago.

Even as the political dividing lines in Britain have less and less to do with Leave and Remain, some are determined to keep fighting the old battle, and many still struggle to see the other side of the argument. Remainers’ skepticism of Britain’s ability to go it alone stems from what they see as a delusion among Brexiteers about the country’s place in the world. The charge is that Brexit supporters suffer delusions of imperial grandeur, wedded to an idea of what Britain once was. If there is some truth to that claim, Remainers often reveal their own misunderstanding of Britain’s global standing by claiming that the sixth-largest economy in the world, with considerable soft power and a seat on the U.N. Security Council is somehow irrelevant. The two misapprehensions are two sides of the same coin: a shared crisis of national confidence.

Leavers have long been sensitive to the charge that Brexit represents Britain turning in on itself, imposing barriers to trade, accepting fewer new arrivals, and becoming poorer and more insular as a result. Until now, it has been possible to argue that breaking free from the EU need not mean any of those things. As of today, the time for hypotheticals is over. It’s no longer a question of what Brexit might mean. It’s time for the country to choose what it will mean. Leave supporters no longer need to hold the line against an effort to block Brexit. Instead they can engage in a good faith discussion about what direction a newly independent UK should take. At stake isn’t just the political and economic health of the Britain, but a radical experiment in a country plotting a new course for itself by balancing sovereignty and openness in the 21st century.

Whether or not they voted for it, the whole country is part of that experiment. The sooner debates over immigration, trade and the special relationship become more than Leave vs. Remain proxies, the better chance Britain has of succeeding. The country can rise to this historic moment, but only if the national conversation transcends the Brexit wars of 2016 to 2020.