Politics: Brexit

A very brief crash course on Brexit for my fellow Americans:

In the summer of 2016 the United Kingdom’s prime minister, David Cameron, needed some political capital for negotiating with the European Union. He thought he could score some by offering a public referendum on EU membership, which would of course come back thunderingly in favor of EU membership and thus help him advance his agenda by showing the people were behind him.

It didn’t go according to his plan. Quite the opposite happened, in fact: the people voted to leave the EU. Soon after the government announced its intention to leave the EU in March 2019, and will you look at that, the time’s almost up.

Leaving the EU is difficult. The UK’s economy has been so entwined with the EU’s for so long that it’s sort of like trying to separate conjoined twins. Unfortunately the separation is not going at all well, and they are running out of time. At present, the separation looks like it could be any of three choices:

  • Fake Brexit. PM May has negotiated an exit settlement which settles very little. In substance it amounts to a marital separation with an agreement to divorce at some future date once everyone’s satisfied with the division of property in the divorce decree. In reality, everyone knows no one is ever satisfied with the division of property, and thus this amounts to nothing more than Mom and Dad living in separate apartments but still being married because they can’t agree on who gets the sofa.
  • Hard Brexit. This is the default: absent a deal, the entwined economies are suddenly cut apart and each deals with terrible upheaval for it. This is what happens when Mom and Dad are each so furious with each other they say they don’t care about the sofa, they blame each other for being so greedy about the sofa, and when the sofa catches fire in the middle of the night both loudly protest their innocence while accusing the other of “you just couldn’t let me have it, could you”.
  • Tearful Reconciliation. Some people are saying that since the original vote was so narrowly in favor of leaving the EU, there really should be a do-over election with a “proper” threshold of, say, a two-thirds majority being necessary. Or, Mom and Dad have consulted with their divorce attorneys, discovered how awful their options are, and have suddenly decided they were terribly premature in opening those divorce proceedings. The problems here are manifold: first, it does nothing to address the underlying problems that made a majority of United Kingdom voters choose to leave the EU, and second, it would make mockery of the UK’s claim to be a democracy. The voters have spoken: if David Cameron and his ilk don’t like what they said, that’s on them.

To the extent there’s any good news at all, it’s that the UK’s government seems keen on avoiding “Tearful Reconciliation” above. Instead, right now it’s a toss-up between half-measures (“Fake Brexit”) and extreme ones (“Hard Brexit”).


  1. Your first sentence is incorrect. The conservative party included an EU referendum as part of their manifesto in the 2015 general election. They needed to do that otherwise they would have lost a lot of voters to ukip. Ukip had been pushing for a referendum for a long time, so were happy not to oppose the conservatives because of this pledge.

    David Cameron tried to negotiate with the EU knowing that this referendum was going to happen. The hope was that the EU would offer a better deal knowing that there was a chance that the UK would leave. David Cameron was hoping to campaign for remain using this new deal as political capital.

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