The United States had its cathartic post-2016, post-Trump ceremonial moment – but the United Kingdom cannot have a similar post-2016, post-Brexit moment

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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19 thoughts on “The United States had its cathartic post-2016, post-Trump ceremonial moment – but the United Kingdom cannot have a similar post-2016, post-Brexit moment”

  1. Although rejoining is unlikely within the next 5-10 years, it can be hoped that sense may eventually prevail and the UK or what is left of it will gradually negotiate to be in the CU or attempt to negotiate some benefits of the single market.

  2. If there were political consensus in the UK supporting an application to re-join the EU, there is not much doubt the EU would facilitate that. It’s true France blocked British membership of the EEC in the 1960s. But we are not in the 1960s any more, and the EU is not the EEC.

    Ireland, for one, would be likely to strongly support British re-entry (not necessarily out of affection, but for purely practical reasons such as logistics of trade flows). And the past few years have shown that Ireland, despite its comparatively small population, is adept at getting what it needs from its European partners.

    More broadly, the EU sees itself as the sponsor of a political and historical sweep towards continent-wide unity and harmony on a multilateral (and, in its self-estimation, democratic) basis, banishing to unloved history the “great power competition” of the 16th to 20th centuries. This was not necessarily a vision shared by Charles De Gaulle in 1966, but it’s the consensus worldview in Brussels today.

    The idea that the EU would readily block an application for UK membership is just as tone-deaf to European perspectives as much of the British commentary on EU matters in the past 30 years (albeit tone-deaf in its own unique way).

    What is true is that EU would be reluctant to waste time or resources on an application that seemed unlikely to succeed, or seemed likely to be quickly reversed. An example might be where the UK’s opposition party was loudly opposed to the EU membership application, and was committed to re-Brexit as soon as it gained power. How the EU would deal with that situation is hard to say, but my guess is that they would slow-pedal the application to see how it played out. (Turkey has been in “associate membership” / accession talks since I was in primary school and now I’m middle aged.)

    Another factor is the UK’s famous “budget rebate” and Maastricht Treaty opt-outs. These will be difficult to defend in any re-entry negotiations. My guess: the budget rebate is not coming back, everything else is up for discussion.

    If there is a massive change of heart in the UK, the EU will welcome us back with open arms, provided we pay our way. If domestic UK support for EU re-entry is thin, or ambiguous, or tentative, an application will take a long time, which in EU terms means something close to “never”.

      1. I should have said, it’s a great article, and it’s impossible to quibble with nearly all of it.

        But the English/British exceptionalism of which you speak can go too far in more than one direction. There is no reason to think the EU particularly despise us. They don’t need to see “remorse”. A membership application from a wealthy neighbouring democracy will always be well-received. It’s true of Norway and Switzerland, and it’s true of us.

        The caveats are practical not emotional; principally reluctance to waste time on a fool’s errand (if fool’s errand it is). And money; I cannot emphasise enough that the budget rebate is gone. Fine, EU membership is a bargain even without a discount.

    1. I’ve just been trying to say the same thing in a separate post – which I hope will soon appear below – but you put it so much better! Hopefully we can talk DAG round on this one…

    2. “Another factor is the UK’s famous “budget rebate” and Maastricht Treaty opt-outs. These will be difficult to defend in any re-entry negotiations. My guess: the budget rebate is not coming back, everything else is up for discussion.”

      I have always assumed opt-outs and budget rebates would be off the table for any rejoinder application – I can’t see how that would fly with voters in Member States. The ones I know think we had chiseled out a overly beneficial arrangement.

      Anyway, just as DAG says the UK (or England) will be a different entity should re-admission ever be on the table, so too will the EU, which has its own big decisions about the future to make without the UK involved.

      1. I guess my perspective is that other member states benefit from certain opt-outs (Denmark) whereas the Budget Rebate was UK only.

        In any event the summary is that we are not rejoining any time soon. But it all comes down to public opinion, which can change in unpredictable ways.

    3. Agreed (and to DAG and your subsequent responses).

      Another factor often overlooked is that nothing stays the same. In particular, the EU will evolve over those 5-10 years – more power to the European Parliament, stronger laws protecting citizens (unlike UK apparently), possibly revised ag and fisheries policies, more climate protection, etc. To my mind, this will be good and make re-joining more attractive, but I can believe there will be many Brits who see this as worse.

    4. I would like to think that you are correct. It is certainly true that Ireland is currently inconvenienced by Britain being outside the customs union, as to a certain extent are France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

      However, it is hard to see why any EU country would welcome back such a troublesome entity as the UK. Unless we are fully committed to being a core member of the EU, they are better off without us.

      The same might not be said of us rejoining the customs union, and possibly the Single Market. That would solve the economic hassle we have brought about without allowing us to be a pain again.

      A final point – the whole episode shows why referendums are a bad idea. A government can be hoofed out at a general election; laws can be repealed or amended; MPs can be defeated. That is how democracies work. Referendums create realities that can’t easily be superseded, and fit very uneasily into most democratic systems. And yes, I would think that if the 2016 vote had gone the other way.

  3. I’m inclined to agree with Martin above. If there is sufficient clamour in the UK (and right now that’s hard to envisage given the policies of the ‘main’ political parties), the EU would surely be amenable.

    Enough EU politicians have stressed that Brexit is a lose/lose outcome, in that both parties lose out. Imho, the UK loses more, but that doesn’t really matter – the EU’s heft is significantly but not massively bigger having the UK in it, both economically and militarily. I reckon they’d take us back, in terms to be agreed – once again, we’d be the supplicant but we’re getting used to that now!

  4. Spot on in every way except for one of the most important: I disagree quite strongly with your view that the EU would not even consider the UK re-joining for “at least a political generation”.

    Firstly, a transnational body such as the EU has a built-in tendency to absorb, to say “yes” to applicants, because it is ultimately the best way to advance the things which lie at the heart of its mission: peace, trade, security and solidarity in a darkening world, bringing direct benefits to ordinary people who live on the continent of Europe. These are ideals the EU champions – and ultimately it wants as many people as possible to share in them.

    Secondly, there are very special reasons why the UK would be likely to be welcomed back. Geo-strategically, the UK is no Turkey. For all its recent waywardness, it will continue to be regarded by the EU – at least in comparison to other nations out there – as a stable democracy, a great trading nation, a military power, and an integral part of Europe’s long story.

    But perhaps more importantly, the EU has watched the UK split down the middle – it will be keenly aware that half (now more than half) of the country is “on its side”, a tendency that I predict will only grow stronger. It will have heard and registered Scotland’s heartfelt cry of loyalty. It may even reason – I think with justice – that the whole Brexit psychodrama has fundamentally improved its standing in the UK. The true benefits of EU membership – formerly so opaque – are becoming ever clearer to Brits, while politicians’ anti-EU misrepresentations (and the ridiculous tabloid tropes) have been exposed for the nonsense they are.

    Much will depend on what happens in the next three or five or seven years, of course, who is doing the asking and why. But when the UK comes knocking – as I believe it eventually will – the EU will see itself as welcoming back an old friend who had temporarily lost her way.

    1. Like you Gavin I think this is a excellent and though provoking piece from DAG. I’m somewhat less optimistic than you though regarding our rejoining prospects. Scotland is going to fight hard for independence and might well gain it. NI has a way to rejoin the rest of Ireland and might vote to do so. This will leave England (and Wales, poor souls) with a Conservative majority, perhaps reinforced by boundary changes, I think DAG is right, a political generation for the ERG & UKIP entryists to the Conservative party to die out. The Labour Party has similar problems; it isn’t presently a rejoin party and would need to be for there to be broad consensus to rejoin.

  5. What you say is realistic and has changed my view. One important factor that needs to be considered is, as Steve Hardwick says, how the EU may change in the future. I’ve never been a starry-eyed remainer, and the EU is not in a state of stable equilibrium, which makes how it will change hard to predict. It may be that some form of looser association, designed to meet the needs of countries such as Norway, Switzerland and the UK (or should I say England?) might come to pass.

  6. A puzzle. What of global economic events. The rise of globalisation – aka shipping jobs to China – started off worker discontent. Couple that with a restrictive housing policy and easy immigration and you have discontent. Add a failure to educate/train/socialise a swathe of the population and you have trouble. Brexit was stirred up as an answer – but it is plainly a non-answer. Which raises two questions:

    Cui bono. The Tory Right is not stupid and could easily see there were no economic advantages for the masses, so what do they expect to gain? Possibly some freedom from taxes and a compliant workforce is all I can think of.

    Then there is mass employment. Being inside the EU may have been a bit restrictive but it was a useful closed shop, kept average Joe’s wages up. Wage rates inside the EU could be held up through tariff and non tariff barriers. This seems a practical recognition that you cannot expect to train large numbers as Time Machine builders or teach tensor calculus to 14 year olds. Humans are limited and you can buy just as good elsewhere – cheaply. The EU may have lost some business with the UK but it is the UK that is now out in the cold wide world – and the economic realities are not pleasant. So far the unicorns are still stabled.

    For any sort of Singapore-on-Thames to work we will need two sorts of worker – the very clever and those who work very cheap. Not many of the Cui bono there. Essentially UK workers have signed up to a pretty miserable life. Not what they thought they were signing up for. Certainly world economic forces will blow cold through the EU but it is big and powerful enough to hold off the worst effects.

    As for going back in. Not for a very long time I think. The EU has now got us in an underdog position and is likely to want to keep it that way. The masses have been suckered, thank you Boris.

  7. Thank you for another interesting post.

    In all comparisons it is important to consider like with like. Indeed, false equivalences have been the hallmark of the debate among degenerates on both sides of both arguments on both sides of the Atlantic. It is true that there will be no catharsis for the UK and the US has a chance to start over. However, it was ever thus and enough similarities between the rise of Trumpism and our new perpetual state of Brexit remain and we would be foolish to ignore them.

    I read this piece alongside today’s FT magazine article “Inside the Brexit deal: the agreement and the aftermath”* which provides a fascinating insight into the negotiation process. What leaps out is that despite the insistence on ‘sovereignty’ above all else, there were (and still are) no plans on what to do with it.

    Like the proverbial dog that can neither eat nor procreate with the car, yet risks life changing injuries by pursuing it, the benefits of Johnson’s sovereignty to wellbeing, security and wealth are (and remain) illusory.

    That so much was given up for so little is reminiscent of the insurrectionists that successfully breached the Capitol on January 6th, publically proclaiming victory on social media only to see President Biden inaugurated a fortnight later. In between many have been arrested and face conviction, incarceration and the loss of the cherished right to bear arms.

    As you have written previously the problem is less to do with the lies than the fact that people do not mind being lied to. The Trump biographer and metajournalist Seth Abramson has made similar observations, although arguably goes further by implying that the dense framework of lies provides tangible benefits to adherents in much the same way as an alternative reality game rewards it’s players for prolonged engagement**.

    Like Trumpists who continue to insist that the election was stolen and remain immune to basic facts about Covid, there is a danger that true Brexiters will be unable to acknowledge evidence of the escalating costs of their sovereignty. The vagary of sovereignty, by design rather than accident, is of course the perfect yardstick by which to measure Brexit progress.

    The Big Lie about the stolen US election arose and became a self-perpetuating myth, and the “yes but sovereignty” argument is destined to become the default denial of adversity, real or forecasted in the UK. Worryingly it may be sufficient to sustain the political momentum for further isolation long after evidence of social, economic or cultural benefits have evaporated. Informed decision making and the maintenance of any form of post-Brexit relationship with the EU in these circumstances is something that troubles me greatly.

    Many Brexiters will still enjoy playing the game but unlike the insurrectionists they “caught the car” and may find, like some in the fishing industry, that the game ends up playing them.


  8. DAG writes: ‘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.’

    There’s also a third: the Tory party and its supporting media. They were they party that took the UK into the EEC; the same party (at least by name) came up with Brexit, egged on by the conservative press. Maybe one day the Tory party will change its mind again. Perhaps the reason ‘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’ is that such a process cannot begin until the party that chose to hold that referendum – and lost – is out of office and out of power.

  9. The Trump bad stuff started almost straight away in 2016, whereas the Brexit bad stuff is only just starting now. No-one is seeking Brexit catharsis yet. It may yet happen!

  10. As a European (in spirit) I think the European Union is better off without the United Kingdom. The UK did, sometimes, play a constructive role in the EU, notably with the creation of the Single Market and the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe. But in recent years the UK has been a veritable dog in the Euro-manger, while the Brexit process itself has been a painful demonstration that England has deep ‘issues’ with Europe and with specific European countries, particularly Germany, Ireland, France and Spain (probably in that descending order). For these reasons I didn’t support a ‘second referendum’ and I don’t support ‘Rejoin’.

    As an Englishman and a UK citizen, though, I find myself with my nose pressed against the glass, a melancholy position to be in, like a European-minded Turk or Serb or Russian. Never mind rejoining, I would be happy with a customs union and membership of the single market, plus other co-operation (e.g. Erasmus) in a spirit of goodwill. The first I think is quite likely, in time, because the current arrangements are so dysfunctional. Single market membership much less so, alas, as I have seen how unpopular migration from Eastern Europe has been in my corner of middle England.

  11. This is a very bleak assessment. And deeply depressing.

    On the one hand, most people who read your blog will agree with your FT colleague Martin Wolf that Brexit is literally ‘insane’; on the other you set out seem very cogent reasons why it won’t be enough for people to be exposed to, and probably suffer hugely from, this insanity.

    I know that you don’t think that logic is likely to prevail, but even without the rebate, we would be economically much better off if we could re-join, so I don’t worry about losing that. I am not sure we would be forced to join the euro. And I don’t think a United States of Europe will seem very likely to anyone any time soon.

    Tangentially, I should like to add that the losses are not all economic. We live about a third of our lives in Italy, where we have had a house for nearly 40 years, and our habitual schedule means we can navigate the 90/180 day restriction fairly easily (friends who like to be there from April to September, and have done this for decades, are desperate). But the loss of our life, as we have known it for so many years, as citizens of Europe, is a source of the deepest sorrow & pain – and anger.

    I for one will do everything I can to support a move to re-join the EU, or at least the single market. There will be votes in this, which could be significant in future hung parliaments, even if Starmer cannot bring himself to line his party up with his former, and more plausible, anti-Brexit self.

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