The effort to remove Britain from the European Union is proving far more formidable than many anticipated. Why? And where do we go from here?
There is a well-known saying in the context of relationships and divorce: “Breaking up is hard to do.” And so it has proved with the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union. The British exit from the EU (“Brexit”) has turned into nothing short of a national nightmare, an epic mess, and an existential crisis for the world’s fifth largest economy. It appears impossible for the UK to fully extricate itself from the EU’s embrace. How did the UK arrive at this unforeseen, disastrous impasse?
Battling with the EU was to be expected, but Parliament also connived with the Civil Service to undermine Brexit and subvert the democratic will of the people. By early April, the UK had not left the EU and showed few signs of being able to do so.
The fact is, the EU does not want any of its constituent parts to leave. What it wants is “ever closer union” in a journey destined in its eyes to end in a federal super-state—a United States of Europe.
Until December 2009 and the Lisbon Treaty, there was no provision for a member state to leave the EU, so Article 50 was added. However, no one ever imagined that a major player like the UK would want to “up sticks” and leave.
Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973, but the relationship was strained from the beginning. The UK electorate was assured that joining with the other nations was an economic matter, not political, but the truth went unspoken. European and successive UK leaders knew full well that the entire project was political to its core, involving considerable loss of sovereignty. As time went on, the question of Europe became Britain’s “forever” political problem.
In May 2015, after David Cameron was re-elected Prime Minister, he responded decisively to the electorate’s growing concerns about the EU. Over the following months, his efforts to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership failed. Then, on 23 June 2016, he held a national referendum on whether the country wanted to leave the EU or stay in it. Never did he think the country would opt to leave, but this was the shock result. Fifty-two per cent of the UK electorate said they wanted out (17.4 million people).
Cameron immediately resigned and Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister. On 29 March 2017, she invoked Article 50, formally announcing the UK’s intention to leave the EU. The country embarked on a two-year countdown to leave at the end of March 2019. But in the meantime, Mrs May had lost her slim majority altogether in a “hung” parliament, which severely weakened her capacity to achieve a successful Brexit.
The EU insisted on producing a “divorce” document that would essentially give the EU everything it wanted. Only after the UK had signed up to this document would its desires be even considered. At every stage in the Brexit process, “negotiation” actually meant capitulating to EU demands. The UK ended up being corralled into a “blind alley” that made Brexit all but impossible.
Can Britain escape this fate? It is hard to see how. Parliament rejected the Withdrawal Agreement on several occasions, and it rejected a “no-deal” or “hard” exit—the legal default option if the divorce deal failed. Mrs May repeatedly asked the EU for more time to consider. Various other ideas swirled around, including revisions to the Withdrawal document, holding a second referendum, and calling an early General Election to displace Mrs May. Highly controversial cross-party alliances were even sought in the desperate quest for answers to an impossible situation.
Let us briefly look at three main options. The thinking behind the so-called “no-deal” or “hard” exit was that there would be initial disruption, but that Britain would quickly recover as she acted to forge new trade relationships in global markets. But such was the barrage of propaganda against this move, seemingly from every direction, that this option was formally rejected by Parliament, and then by the EU for being too damaging to the rest of the union.
The second option, requesting more time, may have its merits but cedes decision-making to the EU. Why should the Europe allow more time when they don’t intend to change their minds and the outcome would therefore remain the same? That said, we need to understand that the EU would be delighted if the UK had a longer period for reconsideration, knowing full well that Brexit would become ever more likely to be called off altogether.
Finally, if Parliament, against all the odds, managed to vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement (perhaps revised), the UK might formally leave the EU, but with major strings still attached. Ironically, any vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement would likely defeat the very purpose of Brexit—to free the UK from the EU’s reach. And then there would still be a two-year period to hammer out a probably one-sided EU trade relationship, with a chronically weakened Britain unable to defend its interests.
The stark reality is that Mrs May never was in control of the Brexit process; she lost control of her cabinet and government, and with that the confidence and trust of the electorate. Decision-making and control over Brexit rests firmly with the EU, which means ultimately with Germany—the EU’s most powerful nation. If Brexit fails, Parliament will “take the rap” for failing to fulfil the electorate’s will. Surely, turbulent times and a day of reckoning lie ahead for UK’s politics.
In retrospect, things could have been very different. But the EU, and Britain’s own lack of vision, courage, and national will, effectively conspired to prevent a successful divorce.
All this raises a vital question: Was it ever really viable or realistic to offer the country a clean break from the EU, after 45 years spent integrating together across all areas of life? For all the reasons discussed above, the answer must firmly be in the negative. The UK is facing a fundamental crisis of identity about its place in the world that is likely to rumble on for a very long time to come.
What should all this teach us spiritually? That God is supreme. He is the one who removes kings (rulers) and raises up kings (Daniel 2:21). He rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He will (Daniel 4:17). God is our supreme deliverer (2 Samuel 22:2–4; Psalm 18:2–3).
In the depths of World War II in 1940, when all seemed lost as Nazi military forces were massing to invade, King George VI led the nation in a day of prayer for deliverance. Who would deny that God heard that urgent prayer when Britain most needed Him?
Oh, that the UK could drop to its knees, confess its sins before God, and humbly ask for deliverance and national direction. God just might be merciful and surprise us all with the outcome.