We’ve all had the experience of getting something we want and soon realizing that we really didn’t want it. Maybe it was the dress that looked so much better in the store than at home, the car that kept breaking down or the treadmill that was never trod. It’s called buyer’s remorse. In the modern age, we can usually return any item we find disappointing.
Could someone tell the Brits? In 2016, they voted to abandon the European Union, taking their bangers and mash and retreating to splendid isolation. But they have yet to decide how to do that. On Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May backed off from a pending vote on the deal she had reached with the E.U. She then survived a no-confidence vote forced by rebels in her own party, but the future of Brexit remains murky.
A variety of impulses motivated the popular decision. Those who favored Brexit told the British people that they were sending huge sums of money to the E.U. They said the nation was being overrun with unwanted immigrants. They portrayed the step as an overdue assertion of British sovereignty.
The vote reflected a generalized discontent with the status quo and the common impulse to tell the people in charge to get stuffed.
As one of the politicians who campaigned for Brexit proclaimed, “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
But it was widely taken for granted that the public would vote to stay. Even many of the people who voted for Brexit were shocked when it won. In the days afterward, the top Google search topics in the United Kingdom were “What does it mean to leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?” Many of these voters didn’t want to win; they just wanted to vent.
But win they did, and May’s government has spent the past two years trying to reach terms that comply with the expressed will of the people without doing serious damage to the economy, disadvantaging British citizens living and working on the Continent, or giving up access to the huge European market.
In the end, though, the agreement she secured with the E.U. left just about everyone dissatisfied. The country would remain subject to E.U. rules but give up its old voice in shaping them. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke for many on the left and the right when he called the deal “the worst of both worlds. In the cause of ‘taking back control’ we lose the control we had.”
There is also the insoluble conflict between the desire to close Britain’s borders with the E.U. and the need to preserve unimpeded movement between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which is not — and which is a member of the E.U.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the sectarian violence that had racked Northern Ireland for decades, largely dissolved the border, fostering commerce, travel and better relations between the two peoples.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson warned that bringing back security checkpoints would help extremists, “who could be not only disruptive but actually go back to violence.” Or it could provoke the people of Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and unite with the Republic of Ireland.
The negotiations between Britain and the E.U. have exposed the full downside of Brexit. As the Economist editorialized, “May’s deal is in almost every respect worse than the carefully constructed one Britain already has, which gives it the benefits of being in the EU, while allowing it to opt out of the single currency, maintain its own passport checks and receive a large budget rebate.”
Neither the supporters nor the opponents of Brexit like it. But the alternative is to leave the E.U. without any deal, which could cause major disruptions in air travel, financial payments, goods shipments and other interactions between Britain and E.U. nations.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this excruciating dilemma: Let the people vote again. Now that they have contemplated the bleak reality the majority voted for, they would most likely leap at the chance to change their minds.
The British people are now in the position of the prisoner once cited by Winston Churchill “who languished for twenty years in a dungeon until one morning the idea struck him to push the door, which had been open all the time.” Having created the Brexit predicament, they also have a way to escape it.
Steve Chapman blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. His column is distributed by Creators Syndicate.