With her unamended Brexit bill safe in hand, Theresa May wasted no time in setting an official start date for fight of her life. After months of speculation, we now know that on March 29, the British Prime Minister will trigger the infamous and much-discussed Article 50—the legal mechanism that enables Britain’s negotiations for leaving the European Union to begin. Once the clock starts ticking, the U.K. must arrive at a new deal—presumably one that places the U.K. outside the European single market—within two years, or face going it alone without a trade deal. What a prospective deal might look like is uncertain but the fear of the unknown is eclipsed by the prospect of no deal at all, which most economists liken to Britain tumbling into a global economic blackhole.
But what we do know is this: Brexit, the thing that nobody understands, is happening hard and happening fast. The reason? According to May: “the British people have spoken.” Well, 52 per cent of them anyway, in a plebiscite vote on an issue few people grasped or cared about in a real sense, obscured as the campaign was by other hot-button issues such as “Londoners are pretentious jerks,” and “Are Syrian refugees stealing my job?”
So will next Wednesday be a historic day for British independence and democracy? Like all questions surrounding Brexit, the answer is: “Hrm, um… difficult to say.”
The Brexit process has been a boom time for equally creative but wildly divergent comparisons and metaphors. For those in the Remain camp, it’s like “driving fast off the edge of a cliff,” while for Leavers it’s all about sovereignty, self-determination and a nostalgia for when “Britain belonged to Britons.” But in experiencing Brexit in real time, the pervading sensation here on the ground is neither terrifying nor inspiring: It’s more like being slowly bored to death by the news. Readers who recall Canada’s constitutional debates of the 1990s will remember the feeling: A dull but consistent throb just below the right temple. That’s your brain, upon reading the day’s headlines, begging to die.
Speaking of tired constitutional debates, we mustn’t forget the other Brexit-related headache that’s making Theresa May’s rictus grin look even less convincing than usual. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, made a surprise announcement that she would seek a mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Roughly 60 per cent of Scots voted in favour of Remain, and Sturgeon has repeated expressed public indignation (and, one suspects, private glee) at what she perceives as the May government’s intransigence on the issue of a hard Brexit, with no special deal for Scotland. The message is that Sturgeon has apparently been forced—forced against her very will!—to do the thing she always wanted to do anyway.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party government said it would seek to hold a second vote in either the autumn of 2018 or the following spring. Conservatives, in turn, tabled an amendment in the Scottish parliament that another referendum should not be held before April 2019 at the earliest, meaning they don’t want a vote to happen—if it does happen—until after Brexit has occurred.
Sturgeon, however, has vowed to hold the next independence vote either before Brexit or “at least within a short time of it,” to prevent Scotland from facing a lengthy period of economic uncertainty outside the European single market should it become independent. This how far down the Brexit rabbit hole we’ve already gone: Politicians are now calling for independence referendums in an effort to “stave off economic uncertainty.” If it wasn’t so crazy, it would almost make sense.
And as Britain begins to devour itself like a confused but ravenous snake, the European Council, headed by Polish president Donald Tusk, began quietly digging its trenches for battle. In response to Mrs. May’s announcement, Tusk tweeted that “within 48 hours of the U.K. triggering Article 50, I will present the draft Brexit guidelines to the EU27 Member States.” Tusk is expected to call a summit of the other 27 member states within a month of Article 50 being triggered to outline a mandate for negotiations, which now seem likely to begin in May.
Sir Tim Barrow, the U.K.’s top representative to the EU, told MPs on the European Scrutiny Committee this week: “Our mandate is clear, it is to get on with it. There is a timetable that everyone has bought into it.”
The talk seems tough enough. But beyond that? Hrm, um…difficult to say.