Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Brexit isn’t a divorce, it’s a schism

British Union flag waves in front of the Elizabeth Tower at Houses of Parliament containing the bell know as "Big Ben" in central London, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Britain will begin divorce proceedings from the European Union later on March 29, starting the clock on two years of intense political and economic negotiations that will fundamentally change both the nation and its European neighbors. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/AP
The British flag waves in front of the Elizabeth Tower at Houses of Parliament in London.

Thank God. Never again will those impossible people on the other side of the English Channel be able to interfere with our affairs. Now we can take back control and sit back and watch their union fall apart.

Those, of course, were the sentiments of European leaders on Wednesday as they opened the envelope containing Theresa May’s notification of Britain’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.

Up until now, nearly all the debate on Brexit has focused on what it means for the UK. But the real significance of Brexit may be what it means for the EU. “This is my first divorce,” European Council President Donald Tusk said on Friday, “and hopefully the last one.” I drew that same analogy back in June, but I think it has outlived its usefulness. Two weeks ago, May said she would “prefer not to use the term of divorce from the EU because very often when people get divorced they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards.” I take a different view. We should stop talking about divorce because Brexit will be much more protracted and expensive than the worst imaginable divorce.

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“Schism” is in fact le mot juste for Brexit, recalling as it does the great division between Western and Eastern Christianity in 1054, as well as the period between 1378 and 1417 when there were rival popes in Rome and Avignon. The defining characteristic of schisms is that they are drawn-out and bitter — and the more arcane the points at issue (e.g., when exactly Easter should be celebrated, the precise wording of the Nicene Creed), the deeper the schism becomes. By comparison with a schism, even the most acrimonious divorce is amicable, because the points at issue are ultimately quite simple: custody of kids, shares of property.

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As Rome was to past schisms, so Brussels is to this one. It has the upper hand, because it made the rules. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was drafted deliberately not merely to deter countries from leaving the EU but to make sure that, if any country tried to do so, the effect would be to discourage others. Observe how this works.

Contrary to last year’s theory that Brexit would be the first of many dominoes to fall out of the EU, the precise opposite is happening. Contemplating Britain’s predicament, continental voters are backing away from full-blown secession from Europe. I predict there will be no Nexit, Frexit, Grexit, or any other form of Exit. Quite the opposite. For the EU is now freed from what has long been the principal obstacle to further integration: Britain.

It is easy to forget that the UK was more or less unceasingly a thorn in the side of the European federalists, most obviously during the Maastricht negotiations. But now Britain is leaving — and that means not only that the brake on federalism is removed, but also that the EU-27 can unite in giving the UK a hard time.

On the latter issue, I fear, the Brexiters have always been over-optimistic. Last week, May’s letter proposed that talks about Brexit proceed simultaneously with talks about the new “deep and special partnership” she would like Britain to have with the EU. But the draft European Council guidelines released on Friday rule this out. Meanwhile, the “rEU” — a rather silly acronym for the remaining 27 members of the EU — resumes the march to “ever closer union,” at least for the members of the Eurozone.

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Will the federalist project ultimately fail, as British Euroskeptics have long predicted? Maybe. But it is hard to believe that more federal Eurozone will work worse than the halfway house of monetary union without fiscal union.

What would further Continental integration mean for Britain? The optimists envision an economic version of 1940, with a global Britain striking new free trade deals with the rest of the world. If those trade deals do not materialize, however, I have a nasty feeling that the real domino effect will be in the UK, beginning with a battle within the Conservative Party over the arcane details of the great schism, and culminating in a narrow Scottish vote to dissolve the Union and a return of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Readers of a certain age will remember Tammy Wynette’s country and western classic, D-I-V-O-R-C-E, which was a hit five years before Britain joined Europe. Those who argued for Brexit promised that S-C-H-I-S-M from the EU would lead to H-E-A-V-E-N rather than “H-E double L.” Having argued against Brexit before the referendum, I said back in December that I now understood why so many British voters had voted for it. The EU had performed so dismally in recent years that “Get me out of here” was a legitimate response. But, even as I recanted, I said I still expected the process of Brexit to be drawn-out and bitter. Nothing that happened last week has changed my mind about that.

It took 39 years to resolve the split between Rome and Avignon. The split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy persists to this day. Schisms are like that. We have now begun the process of exiting the EU. But who knows when we shall exit the schismatic process that is Brexit itself?

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.