By: Michael Sauer
David Cameron was cornered.
The brash, anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was exploiting Europe’s migrant crisis for the political windfall, chiseling into the Conservative majority in the House of Commons. UKIP wanted out of the European Union and promised to upset the nation’s political fabric at great cost to accomplish that aim. David Cameron was restless for an expedient solution to cement the Tory coalition, impede UKIP’s expansion into the political mainstream, and extract meaningful concessions from the European Union to appease Euroskeptics.
To ameliorate this situation, he eyed a potentially explosive silver bullet: a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. The vote, to take place on 23 June 2016, was contingent on the Conservatives winning the 2015 Parliamentary elections. His prevailing logic maintained that a strong Conservative victory in 2015 would purge UKIP from Parliament, build political capital for EU negotiations, and inject national confidence into the Remain campaign. Clearer heads would ultimately prevail, Cameron believed, and Britain could fine-tune unpleasant EU regulations without jeopardy of forfeiting the broad economic security blanket provided by EU membership. The upside was clear; the downside could be catastrophic.
Conservatives trounced UKIP, Labor, and the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 election, forcing resignations from each losing party’s leader. Perhaps the sweetest defeat was that of UKIP Leader Nigel Farage, the chief crusader against the European Union, who was stung by a 2,800-vote loss to the Conservatives. Cameron was elated by the surprising margin of victory and was bullish that the ensuing EU referendum would be an effortless success for Remain. After all, the vast British political establishment was determinedly pro-Europe, and business interests heavily preferred European integration. While national concerns about the EU membership were both legitimate and prevalent, the Prime Minister rested peacefully at night assured economic self-interest would carry the day. His overconfidence blinded him from the Leave campaign’s final offensive: vilifying refugees. Immigration into Britain was steadily rising, and Nigel Farage was out for revenge. Farage, backed by an animated right-wing press, weaponized the Paris terrorist attack to panic the British public. The small lead Remain enjoyed in the polls subsequently dissipated, and by the early morning hours of 24 June, it was evident Leave would win.
David Cameron had cornered himself. His resignation came swiftly as the United Kingdom, Europe, and the world grappled with what had unfolded. Weeks later, Theresa May was elected Conservative Party Leader and assumed the position of Prime Minister, promising to fulfill the Brexit mandate. On 29 March 2017, the United Kingdom made its EU departure official by invoking Article 50 of the European Union Treaty, giving Britain exactly 2 years to craft a thorough exit strategy.
By the start of 2019, following months of painstaking negotiations over trade, access to capital, free movement of people across borders, structuring of payments to the European Union, and beyond, May had yet to muster a deal. Her grip on power had become rather tenuous, as she endured two separate votes of confidence, one before her Conservative party, and the other, before all of Parliament. Despite her political survival, her coalition has become most frail at the most crucial moment. Parliament rejected all three of the Prime Minister’s advances for a deal of withdrawal before the deadline, the first of which was crushed by historic margins. Ultra-conservative members of the European Research Group (ERG) have thwarted prospects for a deal. Diplomats in Brussels doubt her ability to deliver. Global markets will be in frenzy. Days remaining have sunk to the single-digits. No one believes this will end well.
None of this had to happen.
The United Kingdom has struggled tremendously since the Financial Crisis. While the world has largely rebounded from rock bottom, Britain has not. Its economy retains the scars of the crash: government debt has soared, housing prices are abysmally low, wages have stagnated, and productivity growth has been lethargic. The European Union writ large has been mired in a brutal economic malaise post-crisis. Every member nation was squeezed by austerity measures, but Britain, despite its relative autonomy within the EU, chose to leave. Britain’s decision to depart was a calamitous failure of democracy. Britons had very little idea the magnitude of the question at hand. Immediately following the referendum results, the top trending UK Google searches included questions such as, “What is the EU?” and “What does it mean to leave the EU?” David Cameron’s government was woefully deficient in making the case to the British public that remaining in the European Union was in their best interest. Cameron invited guest lecturer Barack Obama and cited IMF literature to persuade the masses, but he never candidly addressed Leave’s immigration fear mongering. In the end, he failed Great Britain.
Presently, Theresa May needs a deal―and soon. After Speaker John Bercow stymied a third attempt for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal, key Members of Parliament have described the fiasco as a ‘constitutional crisis.’ Prime Minister May now possesses neither the legislative or leadership capacity to stave off the Brexit cliff. Her sole remaining hope lies in the mercy of the European Union negotiators for another deadline extension. Prime Minister May should advocate for a medium to long-term postponement to recalibrate her government. Perhaps, too, such an extension will allow the nation to reflect on the course of its future.
Britain remaining in the European Union would not give validation to the EU and all its flaws; instead, it would be an affirmation that Britain would be poorer without it. The European Union is the gateway for Britain to connect with other nations, in Europe, and around the globe. From security and trade to diplomacy and policy, the EU bestows greater international weight on member nations than could ever be attained alone. There is strength in union and weakness in discord; no more prevalent now is the internal discord within Britain.
The Leave campaign’s push for national independence from the EU was an argument for independence from peace, independence from security, and independence from prosperity. However, the EU is an imperfect organization. That much is clear. But Britain does itself no favor by abandoning the European Union for a defective go-it-alone strategy. Alternatively, Britain is better suited to reforming the EU from the inside, sponsoring pro-growth policies within the union in tandem with Parliament. Additionally, many Brexit supporters consider the EU to be a bloated bureaucracy incapable of either accountability or transparency. The British government and members of the European Parliament must make the EU more responsive to its citizens. If Britain even feels the need to consider leaving, something has gone horribly wrong. Europe, after suffering two world wars a century ago, owes itself the peace that comes from unity. Democracy must be flexible in every era, none more important than today.
Upon learning and enduring the reality of Brexit, Britons’ opinion on the matter have changed drastically. As Brexit inches ever closer, citizens report mounting regret over the 2016 referendum. In truth, the case for and against Brexit was never genuinely conveyed to the public. On that day, an ill-informed populace narrowly decided the economic fate of generations to come. With all due respect to its citizens and the democratic process, Britain deserves a revote ― because it is never too late to Remain.