For all the talks about British exceptionalism, the UK is looking more European every day as the crisis that shakes its political scene bears many similarities with its neighbours’ struggles. Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, the 5 Star Movement in Italy, En Marche and les Insoumis in France, years of austerity after the financial crisis and the rising inequalities created by complex globalisation trends left many citizens across Europe angry at the status quo and willing to cast their vote for new movements. The strength of the two-party system in the UK, combined with the lack of a written Constitution, has made British politicians believe that they would be exempted from this continental wave. However, it has only delayed the inevitable.
Brexit has cut very deep divides in the two main parties and the current deadlock in Parliament on the Withdrawal deal is the direct consequence of this. More and more, British citizens and politicians will realise what has been said from the EU side from the very beginning: Brexit is not about getting a good deal, there is no “better deal” outside the EU. This is not due to an “inflexibility”, this is due to a need to redefine ideologies. The question that is being asked about Britain’s future is how much power and control does the country want over policies and actions that are now decided at a continental and world level by countries, companies and also citizens through social media.
Dani Rodrik’s trilemma remains more relevant than ever: in a triangle with democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration, only two of the three can be combined. You cannot tackle global economic, but also social and environmental issues through more integration without either challenging democracy or national sovereignties and identities. The Government’s approach has been to try to hide the issue with a smart communication trick: branding Global Britain the departure from the deepest example of global integration. However, the smoke screen is reaching its limit and between some Conservatives MPs, the ideological divide is getting beyond repair.
It seems surprising that the first cracks are actually appearing in the Labour party, which seemed bound to benefit from a Conservative internal warfare. However, where Theresa May has always been a loyal and deeply disciplined Conservative MP, Jeremy Corbyn has built his career around rebelling: this culture is turning against him. The question is now how long can Theresa May maintain her own party in line. The Independent Group creates a window for Conservatives like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve to join if the Prime Minister carries on with her current strategy not to confront the extremists in her party.
It becomes more and more obvious that the British voters will have to have another say on Brexit, whether through new elections or a new referendum. If a no-deal outcome cannot be totally dismissed, it remains small as there are enough Tory MPs who will be able to revoke their confidence in Theresa May if the prospect of crashing out becomes too real. And any deal would be as flawed as the current one and a terrible situation for the UK and the EU: having such an important country as a rule-taker will not be sustainable, as it is already proving unsustainable for Norway and Switzerland. As a consequence, new ideological divides will soon have to be drawn, which will inevitably lead to new parties being created and the traditional party setup to either break or morph.
Globalisation challenges politics everywhere in the world but even more so in Europe. The UK is on the verge of its reckoning with traditional politics that are no longer fit for the 21st century. In times of trouble, it would seem appropriate to turn to friends that share the same problems. Rather than turning away from its closest partners, the UK could find solace in leading a continental reflection on how to tackle the negative side effects of globalisation. And the EU would deeply benefit from learning from Brexit and the UK’s unique perspective as one of the oldest democracies in the world.
Clément Leroy is Research and Policy Engagement Associate (Brexit) at UCL European Institute