I was wrong about Brexit — which I opposed — but I was right that it would be like a divorce. Last June, just two days before the referendum on Britain’s European Union membership, I made a prediction: Getting a decree nisi after 43 years of marriage would take a lot longer and cost a lot more than anyone campaigning for the “leave” campaign wanted to admit.
Last week’s discussions in Brussels between David Davis, the UK Brexit secretary, and Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, perfectly illustrated my point. “When I read some of the papers that David has sent me,” said Barnier during a tense press conference on Thursday, “I see a sort of nostalgia in the form of specific requests that would amount to enjoying the benefits of the single market without being part of it.” That is just the kind of thing spurned spouses say.
In a similar vein, a newspaper article by Guy Verhofstadt — who represents the European parliament in the negotiations — read more like a snarky lawyer’s letter. Davis needed to be “more honest about the complexities Brexit creates,” declared Verhofstadt, instead of “further poisoning the atmosphere.”
In divorce it is standard practice to accuse the exiting party of poisoning the atmosphere if there is the slightest resistance to the furious party’s initial and obviously overstated financial claims.
The EU side has dreamed up the hefty sum of 100 billion euros (about $119 billion) as Britain’s gross “Brexit bill,” and stated flatly that there will be no discussion of future trade until this has been accepted. This is the equivalent of the spurned spouse demanding the family home, minus the mortgage, and refusing to discuss custody of the children until the deeds have been handed over.
And yet, just because divorce is difficult doesn’t stop it happening. Look at the opinion polls. More than a year after last June’s Brexit vote, the great British public is showing few signs of “Bremorse.” If you ran the referendum again, the result would be roughly the same (48 percent for “leave” to 47 percent for “remain,” according to Survation’s poll in July).
“The reason divorce is so expensive,” a twice-married American friend once explained to me, “is that it’s really worth it.” Will Brexit be worth it? Not in the ways that the leave campaign led voters to believe, no. All that money that was supposed to go to the heath service? It will go on divorce bills. But it will ultimately be worth it if Britain can finally stop pretending that all its problems are the fault of Brussels. It will also be worth it for jilted Europe if it can now finally get on with fixing its institutions in ways that, as a member state, Britain always resisted.
Those, of course, are two very big if’s. For its part, Britain remains fixated on the divorce as an end rather than a means. It becomes less and less clear what Brexit is actually for. Is the main objective of Brexit to re-establish control over immigration from the EU? If so, “hard” Brexit seems hard to avoid. Britain has to leave the single market.
Fine. But the negative economic consequences of such a hard Brexit seem likely to cause a sharp fall in net migration anyway. Indeed, those economic consequences may be the reason that the public has been drifting since the election towards the idea of a “soft” Brexit.
But remember what soft Brexit means: You accept the EU’s migrants and its regulations, and you don’t have the slightest of influence over either. You pay a contribution to the EU budget, but you don’t have a vote in any European institution. Some divorce. It would be more like becoming a child bride under sharia.
Meanwhile, what can the continentals make of life without Britain as a European Union member? If EU leaders have learned anything from the experience of the past 10 years, it is surely that the union’s institutions are lopsided. It makes little sense to be half federal: to have a Supreme Court and Central Bank (albeit for most, not all members) but to leave fiscal policy and defense policy almost entirely to the member states.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, wants to establish a European finance ministry and hopes that, if he pushes through a sufficiently Teutonic labor market reform in France, the Germans will grant his wish. But the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, last week said only that she would support a “small” common budget for the eurozone, and even that is a minority view within her Christian Democratic Union. Her finance minister would prefer just to turn the existing European stability mechanism into a European monetary fund. That would change little.
A week in Europe reminds one that, while Brexit is certainly a divorce for the negotiators who must hammer out the terms of the split, it has a dwindling significance for everyone else on the Continent. Most ordinary Europeans moved on some time ago.
So maybe on reflection I was only half-right about Brexit being a divorce. Maybe it’s only a divorce for Britain. For everyone else these days, it’s barely even a distraction.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.