The complicated Brexit process may be on course to claim the political life of a second British prime minister as this week as Theresa May is fighting for survival against her adversaries in the Conservative Party following the dramatic decline of her predecessor David Cameron two years ago. Anti-European, anti-globalization sentiments with a touch of xenophobia and economic scaremongering were originally carried out on the British public by marginal far-right parties such as the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), but the aftershocks of the global economic crisis and the refugee crisis following the Arab Spring have carried them right to the heart of the mainstream political spectrum.
Cameron tried to fight off the challenge of neo-protectionism, xenophobia and isolationism by proactively organizing a referendum on the nicely coined Brexit process, but the strategy terribly backfired when the British electorate under the influence of hardline far-right propaganda voted by 52 percent in favor of leaving the European Union in 2016. Losing the "remain" campaign cost Cameron his post and opened a window of opportunity for May who was perceived more positively by the eurosceptics. But the Conservative Party, as the main liberal player in British politics since the departure of former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was pushed into a position to negotiate the Brexit process that it did not support from the beginning.
In retrospect, the Brexit decision seemed compatible with the political zeitgeist and emerging dynamics of the international system whereby global and emerging powers gradually withdraw from rule-based multilateral platforms and regional arrangements and instead prefer to pursue bilateral deals with their preferred partners. The Donald Trump administration bluntly expressed its will to place "America first" in all critical strategic issues and started to seize its stabilizing function in global politics and world economy. As China, Russia, India and leading European powers such as Germany, France and the U.K. began to engage in complicated bilateral deals and alliances across a range of crucial issue areas, conflicts of interest became more pronounced amongst a multiplicity of actors. Neo-protectionism, currency and trade wars, xenophobia and discriminatory politics were on the rise, and British eurosceptics were keen on surfing on this global tide.
In this chaotic environment, the more right-wing clique within the Tories such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove tried to push for a hard-Brexit scenario based on a notion of complete political, social and economic disintegration from Europe. Such a radical trajectory, which would be more in tune with the demands of more marginal political movements such as the UKIP, was bound to trigger substantial economic and social costs, while invariably strengthening the bond between the U.K. and the U.S. on the Atlantic axis. The economic risks included a substantial decline in international trade and investment flows, a weaker the position of "the city" in London as the financial hub of the global economy, an outflow of highly skilled and qualified professionals and a resulting fall in growth. A leaked government report prepared in early 2018 has shown that the U.K.'s economic growth would be lower than current predictions over the course of the next 15 years in the case of a Brexit through a free-trade agreement with the EU; single-market access and membership of European Economic Area; or without any kind of deal. In the case of hard-Brexit scenario and with no economic deal, growth was predicted to fall by 8 percent, while other scenarios would entail lesser reductions.
Mindful of these risks, May tried to conjure up a more moderate and soft-Brexit strategy that included a sophisticated network of safety nets, transition periods and backstop mechanisms that would have tied the U.K. indefinitely to the European Union. But the fact that, so far, eight ministers resigned from the cabinet just hours after May declared unanimous support among her team to the terms of the Brexit deal created shock waves and turned the whole issue into a quagmire. Dramatically enough, one of the resignations came from the Brexit Minister Dominic Raab, who declined supporting the proposed deal that indicated a more gradual and limited disintegration process than initially envisioned. Left without a Brexit minister, May will try to accomplish the nearly impossible political job of eliciting the support of the whole country for a plan that even her own cabinet did not support from the start. The high-tempered question session in the House of Commons during which over 100 furious members of parliament questioned the Brexit deal shaped out by May was an early indication of the forthcoming storm.
Widespread hostility toward May's soft-Brexit plan among the members of the Parliament from both the Conservative government and the opposition showed the likelihood of a rejection in a future parliamentary vote. In this case, the U.K. might face the risk of leaving the EU without a deal on safety nets or transition periods on March 29, 2019 as the pro hard-Brexit lobby desired all along. British politics do also seem to follow the global shift toward the right with increased emphasis on security, national interests, economic protectionism and disintegration from regional and international fora. How this current will influence the future of the Brexit process will crystallize over the course of the next four critical months.
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