Many people in Britain thought the referendum win for Leave was the moment we left the EU. The deed was done, we were out. Many people in Britain think we’re still in the EU, until the moment transition ends. I have no doubt that some people will think we’re still in the EU even if transition ends without an agreement to take its place (‘no deal’ 2.0). This is what happens when you reduce an unbelievably complex relationship to a binary ‘in or out’ question.
Of course, the reality is that Brexit is both a straightforward binary issue – a point in time, a moment before which we were ‘in’ and after which we are ‘out’ – and a complex and elongated process – that began even before the referendum took place, and will not ever really end, for reasons I’m about to go into. This binary reality, if you like, is unpalatable to the simplists who brought us Brexit, which is why they inevitably cornered themselves into arguing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit (both v 1.0 and v 2.0). Their logic (if you can call it that) requires a clean break from the European Union. But not even the absence of an agreement on the future relationship will bring them this, so their dream is by definition unachievable. Although this won’t stop them hurting us all in their vain attempt to achieve it.
Yes, Brexit is binary. It happened on 31 January 2020 at 11pm London time. Before that, the UK was a member state of the European Union. Since then, it is not. Brexit has happened. Brexit got done.
But Brexit is a process. Negotiating then ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement was like pulling teeth, but it was only the first bit of the process, and not the hard bit. We’re currently in the hard bit, which is settling into the future relationship. Part of that is actively negotiating an agreement on the future relationship (or not). But most of it is about settling into the new dynamic and seeing where we end up: they blew it up, now they need to wait to see where the pieces settle. The architects of Brexit do not want to think about this second part, and they don’t want you to think about this second part. Their myth is built upon the notion that the UK can be the master of its own destiny and determine what its future relationship with its neighbours will be – often without reference to those neighbours’ own realities and objectives. So no, Brexit is not done. Brexit is still happening, and will keep happening for a while yet (probably the rest of my life, and I’m in my early 50s).
The two versions of Brexit – binary event, and complex process – do not exist in isolation. Both are true at the same time. They influence each other. The former could not happen until we had reached a certain point in the latter. The latter is fundamentally altered by the former. The process is transformed by the fact that the UK is no longer an EU member state and so falls outside the EU’s decision-making structures. We transitioned from a process where the EU was negotiating its own divorce, the amputation of one of its limbs (an unprecedented and hugely political process), to one where the EU is negotiating an agreement with a neighbouring non-EU member (for which there are many precedents, at least for the EU, and which for the EU is political, yes, of course, but also very technical).
For the UK, the binary simplism of its exceptionalist populists keeps colliding with the complex realities of geopolitics and economics. Always, the former is forced to defer to the latter. Ultimately, the UK will have to choose a reality in which to exist. Where the choice exists, the UK will probably keep choosing the one that fits more closely with its fantasy for as long as the fantasists remain in charge. So they will opt for a looser relationship with the EU. But there will be some kind of relationship, with or without an agreement. The UK sits deep within the EU’s gravity well. The dark side of the moon can look out at the rest of the solar system and ignore the Earth’s existence, but it isn’t going anywhere.
I will now commit the crime of simplism myself (because finding a place for China in this analogy would send us off down an astronomical tangent) and argue that international trade is currently a binary star system, where every country in the world is a satellite of one of the two stellar giants of this system, the United States and the European Union. Some orbit one; some orbit the other; most orbit both; and both orbit each other (indeed, they are the only ones big enough to exert any meaningful pull over the other). Some in the UK think we can fly off into interstellar space and become the centre of our own system, or at least that we can break free to become a third primary in the existing system. We can’t, of course, because we’re simply not that big any more. Most realistic people will understand that we have to orbit either the EU or the US. But even if we choose the US, that doesn’t free us from the gravitational pull of the EU. We are where we are.
Which brings us back to the binary nature of Brexit. The complex celestial mechanics of international trade will carry us eventually to a new stable orbit, wherever that might be, but it won’t be where we began, which is within the decision-making structures of one of the two giants. Since we ceased to be an EU member state, we cease to take part in its decision making, even though we will continue to be influenced by its decisions. And we are never going to be part of the US decision making system. And so if Brexit means anything, if we can take Brexit as both an event and a process and boil it down to its fundamental essence, its ones and zeroes, it has to be this: giving up control.