At 11 pm on January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom officially cut the rope from the dock of the European Union and sailed away as an independent and sovereign nation once again. It was an exciting, historic and long-awaited day. Democracy had been in peril, but through persistence it ultimately prevailed. This was a day for celebration.
The Brexit battle which began before the 2016 referendum vote has been bitter and divisive. It became a civil war of sorts – drawing lines around new allies and between new enemies. Mutual respect and acceptance of the finality of this decision will ultimately be required to move the country forward together — with unity that temporarily may be feigned, but eventually will be forged.
This is a bitter moment for those who voted to Remain and a sweet moment of celebration for those who voted to Leave. The clarity of unified vision which led Brexiteers in the past now has the sense that the tomorrows of Brexit might be hazy or perhaps even directionless. The enthusiastic charge toward this moment is now met by the precipice of the unknown. Regardless, it happened. Brexit is official and cannot be undone. Job done. At long last.
The crowd of tens of thousands who gathered in Parliament Square to mark this moment together had been a unified force and changed their nation forever. Their power had not been in their individual might but in their collective uniting. They gathered in well deserved celebration.
The mood was festive, with an undercurrent of skepticism which accompanies political reality, and perhaps that skepticism is well founded. Boris Johnson, while talking a firm line on Brexit, knows, as the rest of the UK does, that the real fight over Brexit now begins, not ends. This week the UK begins negotiations which will untangle their interests from those of the EU and forge new agreements of trade, cooperation, reciprocity and hopefully mutual respect and friendship. They have until December 31, 2020 to do so and know it will be a fist fight to the end, with the EU trying to hold onto every bit of power, influence, allegiance — and dignity — they can.
We know it won’t all be civil as their final exchange in Brussels occurred when outgoing MEP Nigel Farage made one final speech from the floor of the EU Parliament and his fellow Brexit MEPs encircled him and pulled out Union Jack flags and waved them at the end. Individual expressions of patriotism and national symbolism are banned, but in one cheeky final move they waved them proudly – prompting Nigel’s microphone to be cut off by Mairead McGuinness, First Vice-President of the European Parliament. The contingency continued to wave and were told, “Put your flags away, you’re leaving. And take them with you if you’re leaving now. Goodbye.” A more final, emphatic and appropriate Hollywood ending could not have been scripted as they exited the chambers for the last time.
So the real Brexit danger is in the details and in the fine print of the forthcoming separation agreement. Like any adversarial divorce, it will likely be ugly and hurtful, with both sides leaving a bit bruised and battered. And though they will need to find a way to move forward together as neighbors, in essence, that side of the bridge on the east has been burned and will have to be rebuilt in thoughtful, creative ways. As the UK leaves one relationship and looks to forge or enhance others, they should be careful not to burn their bridge to the west as well, otherwise they will truly be an island unto themselves in more ways than one.
Unfortunately, they are already starting on thin and tenuous ice. Their natural, immediate allies and trading partners post-Brexit will likely be the Commonwealth nations and the US. PM Johnson is already straining those relationships by his decision last week to allow Huawei, a Chinese company, to build a portion of their non-core 5G telecommunications infrastructure. The fear, of course, and concern with its Five Eye partners with whom they share intelligence (the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) is that if intelligence is compromised by one partner, they all are at risk.
Even though the British PM has stated that only 35% of the network, and none of the critical sensitive areas, will be serviced by the Huawei network, if I knew only 1/3 of my meal could be potentially poisonous I’m not sure I would take the risk and eat any of it. Boris Johnson has put his allies in a difficult position and President Trump in the US and PM Morrison in Australia have already made their concerns and displeasure publicly known.
Reliance on the “special relationship” by which the US and UK are known, is a vital and delicate component of the UK’s new independent future. In the past with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that connection was at its peak, and other combinations of leaders in the past have been notable as well for their close affinity. But is that specialness based solely on the fact that we are connected by shared history? Does it exist due to the personalities of the two leaders? Does it hinge on their politics being aligned? Do the people themselves in both nations need to be connected by shared course or cause? This relationship needs to be intentionally recommitted to by every generation on both sides of the pond in order to maintain its special status.
In this new era of British sovereignty, I hope we in the US continue to be good partners in that relationship, while expecting equal respect and reciprocity from the other side. We should appreciate and honor the importance of a strong US – UK alliance, and be intentional about treating it carefully and considerately. We also need to acknowledge that our “special relationship”, just like democracy, is fragile, but is worth protecting and preserving.
Peggy Grande (@peggy_grande) is the Chair of @World4Brexit and author of “The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years.” She was the executive assistant to President Ronald Reagan from 1989 – 1999 and serves on the National Board of the Royal Commonwealth Society of the USA. She is an internationally published opinion writer and tv and radio commentator.