Maybe What We Love About the Brexit Drama Is … the Drama

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Day by day, Brexit staggers onward. Prime Minister Theresa May remains resolute, of course, while members of Parliament and European Union officials consider possible legal tweaks to the backstop, as if all can be settled with the formulation of one miraculous sentence. Bring on no deal, some wistful Brexit supporters suggest, because food shortages won’t matter — people can grow root vegetables in their gardens and store them through the winter, as in the good old days.

When human behavior seems to drift into the irrational, one looks for explanations in the unconscious. This is perhaps the only level on which the Brexit process can be understood. Maybe it’s the tragic result of a powerful desire for drama and heroics that appeals to the human psyche. The final desperate hope for reprieve may lie with the increasingly rebellious Parliament, which may yet find a way to block the U.K. from leaving the EU with no deal or even organize a second referendum.

In a long speech just before Christmas, Sir Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s former ambassador to the EU, laid out what he called the “delusions, fantasies and self-deceptions” at the core of the debate. One is that the U.K., even from outside the EU, will still enjoy “frictionless trade” with EU nations, by aligning U.K. and EU regulations. Nope. The operation of EU markets under European laws, overseen by European courts independent from any British influence, will inevitably mean trade is more limited than before, even under a final U.K.-EU trade deal.

This is not “vindictive, voluntary, a punishment beating, or any of the other nonsense we hear daily,” Rogers said in a nod to the fulminating U.K. press. “It is just ineluctable reality.”

Leaving the EU, Rogers pointed out, will also mean the U.K. has less clout in trade negotiations, so it will end up trading with non-EU nations on poorer terms. Sure enough, Japan, South Korea and other nations are now seeking to rewrite agreements to their advantage. Predictable — and predicted.

Rogers went on to consider a host of other ideas the U.K.’s news media routinely treats seriously, despite their detachment from reality. Among these are various hypothetical alternatives to full Brexit: “no deal+,” “Canada+” or “Norway+” — which mostly exist only as names, not as plausible options. For example, Norway+ would purportedly see the U.K. joining the European Free Trade Association, currently comprised of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, thereby keeping the U.K. in the single market. This generally ignores the fact that joining would require Norway’s approval, and Norway is not interested.

Logic unavailing, a more plausible explanation for Brexit fervor may lie in the power of historical myth, as suggested by Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole in his book “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.” O’Toole sees the Brexit debacle rooted not in any reality, but in rising English nationalism and a longing for the mythic heroism of World War II and the glories of the lost British Empire. If that sounds preposterous, read the English press.

Rid ourselves of the shackles of the EU, conservatives imagine, and the English — “a sea-faring people” inhabiting “a sceptred isle” — will resume their proud role as unmatched free traders. They’ll revisit their mythical past as swashbuckling buccaneers. Standing up to the EU, invoking another myth, only reflects the Dunkirk spirit. Brexit, in many English minds, has become a contest of wills between Europe and we-will-never-surrender England. Such charged framing plays a disconcertingly prominent role in energizing the Brexit psychodrama.

O’Toole also explores a long-standing obsession of some English conservatives with narratives in which the European project is a disguised attempt by Germany to defeat Britain and dominate Europe, realizing a “Euroreich” — this time without firing a shot. Such notions would seem remote from serious politics, were it not for prominent figures in the U.K. government giving voice to such fantasies. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has compared the EU to both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

From this perspective, O’Toole notes, the Brexit referendum is a fantasy of national liberation — an historic breaking-free from tyranny and oppression. The trouble, of course, is that the EU — for all its actual imperfections — has never been an oppressive force over the U.K. (Greece has a different experience). Hence, Brexit supporters face an unpalatable choice: lashing themselves to the heroic myth and quite possibly landing the nation in a no-deal Brexit catastrophe, or abandoning the heroic enterprise. But that would mean falling back on boring reality, fantasies deflated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."

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