Managing Brexit

Leaving on Good Terms

The Big Ben bell tower on the Houses of Parliament, September 3, 2016. Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Breaking up is hard to do. And it is even worse when the partners do not know what they want. The United Kingdom cannot agree on whether it wishes to retain access to the EU single market if possible, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond suggests, or sail off into some global nirvana of separate trade deals with the rest of the world, as the country’s international trade minister, Liam Fox, wishes. Likewise, Europe is seemingly confused about whether it wants to punish the United Kingdom for leaving or stay friends. Small wonder there is now talk that Brexit may not be completed before the end of 2019.

And it is even harder to separate if one gets the language wrong. As the United Kingdom prepares to “divorce” the EU, many believe that the country will be “adrift” and made “irrelevant,” as so many historians predicted in a letter that then-Chancellor George Osborne asked them to sign in May 2016, a month before the referendum. The United Kingdom has “left the club,” others say, and consequently cannot expect to “use [the EU’s] facilities” or to express any views on the future of European integration.

Although it is true that the United Kingdom should expect some serious short- to medium-term economic disruption, these claims reveal a complete misunderstanding of the historical roots and geopolitical realities of the current European order.

If Brexit is to be managed amicably, there must be clarity about the nature of the existing relationship. The United Kingdom is not divorcing the EU, because it was never married to the Europeans in the first place. If such a relationship exists, it is between the nations of the United Kingdom, ratified by the Act of Union in 1707. Moreover, eurozone members themselves are not united in any meaningful sense of the word, as they are not linked through a political union.

At most, continental Europeans are cohabiting, and they are confused about which rights have now accrued to whom. They

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