The Brexit saga will drag on. Theresa May’s successor, however talented or not, will still face these same intractable problems.
Lost at Sea: Britain Paddles Toward an Unknown Future
Two new complications will now likely distract commentary on the Brexit saga. One, Prime Minister Theresa May has resigned her office pending the Conservative Party’s decision on a new leader later this summer. Two, the EuropeanUnion parliamentary elections have created a more polarized political environment within the union. Tempting as it is to see in these events changing the face of Brexit, it would be a mistake to exaggerate their significance. The fundamental disputes that have thwarted agreement to date remain unchanged, while economic imperatives continue to impel all, on both sides of the Channel, to overcome frustration and seek some kind of post–exit relationship. The first of these fundamental considerations will ensure rough going on an agreement. The second one promises that a deal will eventually emerge, even if seemingly intractable differences will demand as much muddle as clear lines.
Such a combination of fundamental differences and imperatives may for some bring to mind a distant historical parallel: the sixteenth century exit of the English church from the Church of Rome. That England, too, was deeply divided, and could find little room for compromise. As now, that separation required fixes to a bewildering array of established associations, contracts, loyalties, legal obligations, and customs. The archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, had in his oath of office that he was, among other things, the Pope’s legate. Removing those few words required a ruling within the Church of England and vote in Parliament. Every step met resistance from one faction or another. Compromise was all but impossible. The sides distrusted each other completely. The Catholic side saw the action as an affront to God. The Protestant side saw the opposition as agents of foreign powers. It took some three hundred years until the early nineteenth century to resolve the matter, when Catholic emancipation ended suspicion of a large segment of the population.
Three hundred years is a long time, and it would be a mistake to overwork the parallels. But today’s disputes carry similar, if more secular differences in what people consider important, differences that render agreement and compromise extremely difficult if not nearly impossible. These were clearly evident in how the sides in the 2016 Brexit referendum mostly talked past each other and how they have continued to do so since.