In 2016, when Britons voted to Brexit the European Union, it was billed as part of a surging nationalist trend that was gripping Europe. With its cast of bizarre characters, the “Leave” campaign made grandiose promises about the benefits Brexit would bring to Britain.
There was even a likely Russian connection, since, as we now know, the British financier who bankrolled the “Leave” campaign had extensive contacts within the Russian Embassy in London who offered him lucrative investment possibilities.
That was then. The Leavers’ promises have fizzled, the British economy has taken a sizable hit. And Britain’s deep ties with the EU have proved stunningly difficult to unravel, even as a March 31 deadline for Brexit looms closer.
Prime Minister Theresa May just survived a no-confidence vote brought by hard-line Brexiteers within her own party, but she still seems unlikely to find a divorce settlement acceptable to both the EU and the British Parliament. The Brits may ultimately have to hold a second referendum, an option May opposes but that may become inevitable.
The whole sad Brexit tale serves as a warning if the credulous will heed it: The populists know how to woo the disaffected, but they don’t deliver the goods.
It’s worth recapping how Brexit turned into an ordeal rather than — as Leavers promised — a liberation. And where things stand now.
I was in London for the Brexit vote and heard voters regurgitating the litany of promises made by Nigel Farage, head of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP. Prime among them was that leaving the EU would bring a huge cash infusion of 350 million pounds a week for Britain’s national health service. Farage, who was praised by Donald Trump and attended some of his rallies during the 2016 campaign, retracted that claim immediately after the referendum. (He lost all political credibility in Britain, but became a commentator for Fox News.)
Also leading the “Leave” charge was the mop-haired Boris Johnson, a leading Conservative Party figure and Trump clone who (falsely) told Britons they would still have access to the European common market but would no longer have to freely admit workers from European countries under EU rules.
Johnson claimed there would be no economic cost if Britain left the EU. This prediction was also false (although so far the costs have been less than expected). Government predictions are that economic costs of separation will be substantial; the loss of skilled European workers has already had a very negative effect on areas of the economy such as the health service.
The Leavers also bragged that a trade deal with America could outdo Britain’s trade ties to the European Union. But Trump’s zero-sum approach to trade deals makes that claim look like a joke.
The Brexiteers ran a campaign based on fear, whipping up hostility to a supposed surge of Muslim immigrants although Britain admitted almost no Arab refugees in 2015-16. Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is now investigating whether Russia — which is eager to see the EU falter — may have stirred the pot.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The New York Times: “From what we’ve seen, the parallels between Russian intervention in Brexit and the Russian intervention in the Trump campaign are extraordinary.” Arron Banks, the British financier who spent more than eight million British pounds promoting Brexit, has a Russian-born wife and bragged of his Russian contacts.
Given all of the above, one might think that Britons would be eager to reverse course in a second referendum, and polls show a slim but not definitive margin for Remainers.
“Think of this in the U.S. context,” suggests Sebastian Mallaby, a British journalist and senior fellow in international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The people who supported Trump in 2016 seem pretty keen to stick by him. The same dynamics exist in Britain. Those who believe we should have remained and that Boris Johnson is selling a pack of lies have been confirmed in their opinions. But at the same time, those who wanted Brexit (still) believe crashing out of the EU won’t be bad.”
However, the deciding factor, in the event of a second referendum, may be a category of voters who appear committed to Europe: voters in the younger generation. Polls tell us that over 70 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds backed Remain in the referendum, and 82 percent say they would do so in a second ballot, as would around 67 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds.
The night before the 2016 ballot, I attended a huge party at an old London factory that had been turned into an artists’ cooperative. The mood of the gathering was fervently “Remain” but many students and young artists told me they hadn’t voted. They had been certain “Remain” would win.
If circumstances compel May to hold a second referendum, the turnout of young voters could make the difference. They, more than recognition of the populists’ fakery, may turn out to hold the key to Britain’s economic future. This may be the only optimistic scenario one can envision for resolving the convoluted Brexit mess.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.