The negotiations and the complex, chaotic debates around Brexit are revealing of a major dilemma facing democracies: What do you do when a country is profoundly divided?
PARIS — "I never go anywhere without my Irish passport anymore, you never know!" My British friend is very happy about his dual nationality. Since the victory of Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, he's been sporting it proudly on any and all occasions as a form of insurance against irrationality. The harp on his Irish passport gives him a second chance, a chance to remain fully European. If things turn nasty in London, he will always be able to seek "shelter" in Dublin.
After the (very) preliminary deal struck between Britain and the European Union, my British-Irish friend no longer knows what to think. On the one hand, he almost feels resignation in the face of the inevitable divorce, which already seems well underway. On the other hand, he wants to believe that all's still on the table, because nothing is solved until everything is solved. The issue of the physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, meaning between the United Kingdom and the European Union, remains a complex matter. It risks becoming the 21st-century equivalent of what the Schleswig-Holstein Question was for Europe's 19th-century diplomats.
There is the more down-to-earth fear of a "soft Brexit."
My friend is clearly torn between fear and hope. The hope that the threat of chaos, which, like a sword of Damocles, still hangs over the negotiations' outcome, will force the British to reconsider their choice. John Bull, the archetypal Englishman, gave in to emotion in June 2016, but his realism will eventually get the upper hand. Could a would-be second referendum reverse, in the most democratic way possible, the result of the first one?
Of course, it wouldn't look very good. But Britain can find in their beloved Shakespeare all of life's possible circumstances. And, in this particular case, Much Ado About Nothing is by far preferable to the chaos that will inevitably — but slowly, it's true — spread.
Beyond the "hope for chaos," there is, inside my friend, the more down-to-earth fear of a "soft Brexit," which, regarding its position to the European Union, would leave Britain in a similar situation as France's in its relation with NATO after President Charles De Gaulle had pulled it out of the military alliance. We were still subjected to the same constraints be we no longer had our say in the decision process. In the case of Britain, it would thus be a compromise that would avoid the worst in terms of the economy and finance, but politically, it would be as frustrating for the supporters of Brexit as for supporters of "Remain."
What do you do when a country is deeply divided on a crucial issue, if not the crucial one?
If Britain stays "a bit" in the Union after having chosen to leave it, mostly for reasons of identity and sovereignty, the belief in democracy and its system will be badly affected. "You express your preference and end up sitting on the fence," Britons fear. "On the one hand, you pay a hefty sum to leave. On the other, we don't get full and entire sovereignty back, because of small arrangements between friends, which are made to protect the interests of those privileged by the system."
The debate over Brexit, in its extreme complexity, is revealing of one of the major dilemmas facing our democracies. What do you do when a country is deeply divided on a crucial issue, if not the crucial one? Authoritarian systems don't have this problem, or rather they have a ready-made answer. Those at the top decide without consulting those at the bottom. The people only have to follow. You want to destroy the old neighborhoods of your capital, to build another capital elsewhere? No problem. The people will yield to your will. But in exchange for this "simplicity," there is, of course, the ever-present risk of violent revolutions to change the system's almighty.
In Britain, a slim majority of the people voted in favor of Brexit, plunging the country into a state of extreme wavering. This continues and will continue regardless of the success of the ongoing negotiations. Even now, in December 2017, according to a study published by the YouGov data platform, 42% of respondents still think they were right to vote in favor of Brexit, 11% think that the government should seek a "softer" Brexit, 18% are in favor of a new referendum and 16% simply want to abandon Brexit, and act as if the vote had never taken place.
It is no longer a question of finding a good solution, but the least bad of possible compromises.
These divisions are to be found inside the political class too. No compromise, regardless of the talent of the negotiators on either side, will succeed in reconciling the pro- and the anti-Brexit camps. It is no longer a question of finding a good solution, but the least bad of possible compromises, the one that gives Brexiters the feeling that their vote has been respected and the supporters of Remain the conviction that the worst has been avoided.
For the moment, Britain seems to have resigned itself to considering that European demands are not that irrational. So Britain will pay. In return, it will get an additional two years, the minimum necessary to successfully "unravel" the many ties forged over a more than 40-year-long relationship with the EU.
In other words, the "Bregretters' party, to use a portmanteau word that is beginning to spread across Britain, that is to say the party of those who regret Brexit, doesn't exist yet — and has failed to unite behind a political figure. Tony Blair has tried to become that leader, but his image remains too negative in the public's mind. In short, nothing is clear, except the fact that the most difficult and the most chaotic part is yet to come. Bad news for Britain, Europe and, more generally, those who believe in democracy.