Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Brexit chaos exposes UK's diminishing clout on the world stage

The shambolic departure from the EU is a wake-up call for a nation that has delusions of past grandeur

Nigel Farage (R), former UKIP leader and a key exponent of Brexit, addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week. Patrick Seeger / EPA
Nigel Farage (R), former UKIP leader and a key exponent of Brexit, addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week. Patrick Seeger / EPA

British Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered the single largest legislative defeat in British history. Her Brexit withdrawal agreement was roundly rejected on Tuesday by a majority of 230 votes in the House of Commons. With her European Union exit strategy in tatters, Mrs May now faces a motion of no confidence. While few expect her to lose it, she is in office but not in power, with more than half of voters disapproving of the way she has handled Brexit. While British MPs clearly oppose her deal, none have offered a viable alternative, just 10 weeks before the UK is due to crash out of the most successful trading bloc the post-war world has seen. The EU, for its part, now regards Britain with a mix of despair and frustration. “I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, after the vote. “Time is almost up.”

For millions of British people, both in the UK and in self-declared “Brexile”, the process of leaving the EU is beginning to look like a national humiliation. The UK is still certainly relevant on the global political and diplomatic stage. It is the world’s fifth largest economy, an influential military and nuclear power with a seat on the United Nations Security Council and a leading financial centre that will endure after Brexit. But the reality is that British politicians, media and parts of the populace still have a tendency to dwell on imperialistic notions of the importance of Britain to the rest of the world.

The shambolic state of its departure from the EU could therefore be a wake-up call for a nation that looks primarily to history for status and validation. Britain’s clout was boosted by its EU membership and the regional influence that came with it. It was Conservative prime minister Ted Heath who first led Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973, understanding that shared sovereignty could bring greater prosperity to the continent and democracy to eastern Europe. But after leaving the EU, Britain will be on the outside looking in, forced to shout louder to be heard. Contrary to the promises of Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the UK will not receive special treatment when it comes to trade deals. On the Irish border, for instance, Britain was forced to choose between the turmoil of a no-deal Brexit or the sovereignty of Northern Ireland. This is how countries other than the US and China are treated by vast contiguous trading blocs. And Britain is not the US or China.

Some now demand a second referendum or a people’s vote on the deal itself. Others will see this as an opportunity for the UK to decide what kind of nation it wants to be. Troubling fault lines have opened up across Britain, with communities, neighbours and even families unable to agree on a way forward. Ultimately, the next steps are unclear. Britain could yet remain in the EU or the customs union or crash out of both. But one thing is evident: Britain has rarely looked so adrift and so alone.

Updated: February 20, 2019 04:28 PM

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