22nd January 2021
Two days ago the inauguration of a new president in the United States gave ceremonial form to the constitutional substance that the presidential term of Donald Trump was over.
What had been done in 2016 had, to a significant extent, been undone.
Of course, there will be things that could not been undone, such as the scale of the avoidable loss of life by reason of a flawed coronavirus policy.
The extensive conservative appointments to the federal judicial benches will take a political generation to counterbalance, if they are counterbalanced at all.
And Trumpism – populist authoritarian nationalism feeding off post-truth hyper-partisanship – certainly has not gone away, even if Trump is no longer in the White House.
But taking account of these exceptions, there was still a moment of closure: that a particular presidency was both formally and substantially at an end.
In the United Kingdom there will not be such a moment where one can say the consequences of the 2016 referendum vote will come to a similarly cathartic end.
In 2016, American voters (via the electoral college) elected Trump for a term of four years, while those in the United Kingdom voted for Brexit with no similar fixed term.
One decision was set to be revisited in four years, the other was not.
Even the (various) departure dates have not provided any sense of release.
The United Kingdom was to leave on on 29th March 2019, then 12th April 2019 or 22nd May 2019, then 31st October 2019, and then 31st January 2020 (on which date the United Kingdom technically left the European Union), and then there was a transition period which would end on 31st December 2020 (on which date the transition period did end) or 31st December 2021.
A couple of this spate of departure dates did turn out to be legally significant, but none of them appear to have had any substantial effect on the politics of Brexit.
Those in favour of Brexit appear to still be trying to convince themselves and others of its merits, and those opposed to Brexit are still seeking to demonstrate its folly.
(This is despite the ‘mandate’ of the 2016 referendum having now been discharged, in that the United Kingdom has now departed the European Union.)
None of the various departure dates marked when those in favour of or against Brexit could say the matter is decisively over, in the same way the Trump presidency came to its obvious end.
Partly, of course, this is because of the ongoing pandemic: every political thing is now muted.
But even taking the pandemic into account, the politics unleashed by the 2016 referendum have certainly not come to anything like an end.
But Brexit will never be over in other senses.
As I averred in this Financial Times video, the trade and cooperation agreement between the European Union is expressly structured as a ‘broad….framework’ that can be supplemented by further agreements on discrete issues and is subject to five-yearly reviews on more fundamental issues.
Brexit is now a negotiation without end.
Instead of ever-closer union we now have ever-closer (or less close) cooperation.
There has not been a once-and-for-all settlement of the matter of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
We have simple swapped one dynamic relationship for another.
Some of those opposed to Brexit are now waiting for a grand realisation – where a substantial number of people may wake up to what has happened since 2016 and come to their senses.
The notion is that such ‘loss aversion’ will have considerable political force and push the United Kingdom back towards the European Union – perhaps even to swiftly rejoining as a member.
This may happen – the lesson of 2016 is that many unlikely things can actually happen in politics.
But it is unlikely – the government and its political and media supporters are adept at evasions and misdirections, and voters are capable of blaming many things before they will blame their own votes.
Yet taking this as a possibility, it would not be enough.
This is because there are two constituencies that those who seek for the United Kingdom to (re)join the European Union need to win over.
The first is the United Kingdom electorate which needs to be won over to settled and sustained support for full membership of the European Union (without the benefits of the United Kingdom’s previous opt-outs).
The second, and perhaps far harder, will be winning over the European Union.
A belief that once the United Kingdom sorts itself out, that (re)joining the European Union would be straightforward is just a variant form of British (or English) exceptionalism.
Even the grandest, most dramatic domestic realisation of the folly of Brexit will not mean the United Kingdom joins the European Union again, unless the European Union also sees it as in its interests for the United Kingdom to (re)join.
Remorse, however sincere and lasting, will not be enough.
There is no reason or evidence to believe that the European Union would consider membership of the European Union for at least a political generation.
(And the United Kingdom itself may not even exist in its current form by then.)
So as Brexit is a negotiation without end, it will also be two political exchanges (the domestic debate, and the two-way relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union) without any early or obvious end.
There will be no cathartic Biden-like ceremony to bring Brexit to a close.
This is because of the nature of the 2016 referendum (which, unlike the election of Trump, was not a decision for a fixed period); and because of the dynamic structure of the new relationship as set out in the trade and cooperation agreement; and because of the unsettled politics both internally in the United Kingdom and of its relationship with the European Union.
And so, to a significant (though not a total) extent, the United States was able to bring what it decided in 2016 to a formal and substantial end, the United Kingdom cannot similarly do so.
For the United Kingdom, 2016 is here to stay.
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