Shakespeare famously wrote of the “sceptered isle” of Britain acting as a moat “against the envy of less happier lands.” Lately, the less happier lands are winning in a rout.
Britain is suffering a political meltdown as it struggles to make good on a historic vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. The decision for a so-called Brexit was a stirring statement of independence and self-government by a people who have defined themselves down the centuries by their stiff-necked resistance to anyone -- whether overweening monarchs or continental tyrants -- who would threaten either.
That was before London ran up against the bureaucracy of the would-be European super-state based in Brussels, and before it was led, if that’s the right word, by Tory Prime Minister Theresa May. Presiding over a divided party, facing a pro-Remain British establishment and negotiating with a hostile EU, May never had an easy task. She has nonetheless not only failed to rise to the occasion but been crushed by it. She has negotiated abysmally, giving away leverage right at the start when she prematurely invoked Article 50, beginning the process of Britain’s departure with no realistic fallback plan if talks with the EU failed. She ended up with an agreement that would effectively leave Britain within most EU rules, with no means of influencing them anymore.
The London Spectator calls the deal “Remain-minus.” The larger question is whether once the EU has its hooks in a nation-state, will it ever relinquish it? Its officials have treated the Brexit negotiations as an opportunity to teach anyone hoping to follow Britain out of the EU a lesson: Don’t dare try to take back the full measure of your sovereignty, lest we make it as miserable for you as possible. This is the Brezhnev doctrine for Eurocrats.
When in the past countries in Europe have voted the “wrong” way on fundamental EU questions, as Ireland, France and the Netherlands did over the years, they were ignored or made to vote again until they got the right answer. Britain may yet suffer the same pitiful fate. The European Court of Justice just helpfully ruled that Britain can withdraw its Article 50 notification -- in other words, forget this whole unpleasant Brexit vote happened. That’s been the hope of many Remainers in Britain all along, but the case for the EU hasn’t gotten any stronger over the past two years.
What does it say about the European project that exit is almost impossible? And if Britain is a political shambles, it’s not as though the most committed advocates of the EU are doing any better. Given the “yellow vest” protests ignited by his idiotic (since delayed) fuel tax, French President Emmanuel Macron can’t even control the streets of Paris on weekends.
May’s strategy seems to be to ride the current impasse as close to the March 29 Brexit deadline as possible, and force the adoption of her lamentable deal for lack of any alternative.
In which case, to return to Shakespeare, “That England that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.