The great 2016 vote-undoing project seems at long last to have been abandoned on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, President Trump’s impeachment fizzled out—a strange and pathetic affair however you look at it. Everyone is looking past it now to this year’s presidential election in November. In London, meanwhile, on Jan. 31 Brexit happened, and most people barely noticed.
A few thousand Euroskeptics called it Independence Day, though not without irony. They got drunk in Westminster, waved flags, and sang songs. Elsewhere in London, Europhiles by contrast wore black and mourned Britain’s departure from the European Union. The Guardian newspaper grumpily printed the headline “Small island” above a picture of a small sand castle with a Union Jack flag poking out, which irritated some patriots on Twitter. For the vast majority, however, a very British apathy took charge: Most of us would rather talk about the coronavirus than engage in another round of arguments over whether Britain belongs to Europe or not.
Brexit took a long time—1,317 days from the referendum vote to Britain’s departure from the EU. The political anger it generated has largely flushed itself out. Boris Johnson won election to the office of prime minister by promising, over and over, to “Get Brexit Done.” That simple, repetitive slogan resonated because it spoke to how fed up the British had become. Most accept that Jan. 31 could later be viewed as a historic moment in the history of the United Kingdom, but the prospect no longer fills them with either hope or despair. They just want to get on with it.
This sentiment is one thing everyone seems to agree on, especially since we now face the really tedious part. Britain has entered the nitty-gritty transitional phase, in which it will thrash out fishing rights, health and safety standards, the technicalities of trade, and the transference of legal authority from Luxembourg back home. Brexit is going to get even more boring to the British, not less. Even politically engaged people will stop following the developments—if they haven’t already.
There was a lot of somewhat disingenuous magnanimity around Independence Day. Leavers and Remainers both talked about “healing” as a country, each side trying to outdo the other in their ostentatious goodwill. British and European politicians waxed sentimental. Nigel Farage, Britain’s most famous Brexiteer, gave his LBC radio show a mawkish farewell tour of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “Pretty impressive,” he said, speaking inside the building. “It’s like a Roman amphitheatre…I’m quite reflective because this has been a huge, huge chunk of my life.”
European mandarins started saying how much they’d miss us on their social media accounts. Brussels’ mayor arranged for the city’s main square to be lit up with the European flag, while a band played bad English pop songs. It was a little too sweet. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, tried to spoil the affectionate vibes by tweeting, “It’s not over,” along with a bizarre pro-EU video that featured lots of rainbow flags and gay people insisting that they must move forwards not backwards. What Brexit has to do with LGBTQ rights, nobody quite knows.
Boris Johnson visited Sunderland, a working class, Brexit-supporting city in northern England. “My job is to bring this country together now and take us forward,” he said. “The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning.” Two days later, his officials leaked to The Sunday Times that the Foreign Office was warning ambassadors to ditch any plans to “seek residual influence” in Europe, to stand apart from their EU counterparts at events, and to “not be shy” to part with EU foreign policy.
The language will be warm; the realpolitik cold. The government intends to use Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for a “beautiful” trade deal with his motherland as leverage in its negotiations with Europe. With Uncle Sam behind it, Britain feels bolder. It always does, for better or worse.
It is curious, then, that the very week of Brexit, Britain announced that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei would indeed provide Britain’s 5G internet infrastructure. In doing so, the government has rejected pleas from the American government, which is eager to stem China’s emergence as the world’s leading tech superpower and sensitive data hoarder. Trump has reportedly called Britain’s decision a “betrayal—Britain claims it must have the fastest internet as soon as possible, since the new prime minister promised as much.
But even the government admits Huawei poses a huge security risk, so the move looks a lot like a kowtow. Caving to China’s economic might is what Johnson’s predecessor and fierce rival David Cameron did. This is more politics as usual, and not the radical new independent politics that Team Boris promised Brexit would bring.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Britain leaving the European Union is not the great leap into the unknown, but that everything will stay the same.
Image Credit: above: British European Parliament member Nigel Farage leaves the hemicycle after addressing European lawmakers during the plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.