Baffled by Brexit? You’re not alone.

Karen Norris/Staff

Two British staffers and one confused American staffer talk Brexit in a group message. 

Rebecca Asoulin (engagement editor, representing the 99 percent of people confused by Brexit): Hey, Simon. How’s the future?

Simon Montlake (Brexit reporter, Brit): Hi, it’s March 30th and Brexit has happened.

In the end Britain left the European Union without a deal. Nothing could be agreed on time, and there was lots of finger pointing about who was to blame.

People stocked up on food and so far the day has started normally, no sign of panic, but more police on the streets. Still, life goes on.

Does that sound like a plausible future, Peter?

Peter Ford (senior global correspondent, Brit)Perhaps you are being unnecessarily alarmist. Your future is quite conceivable, but there are other possible futures.

For a start, British Prime Minister Theresa May might manage to strike a last minute deal with the European Union on the terms of an exit agreement and get it through Parliament by March 29th. The prospect of Britain falling off the edge of a cliff in a ‘no deal’ Brexit might concentrate Parliament’s mind.

And there is also a strong chance that London will run out of time, as you suggest, and simply ask Brussels for more time to work out a solution. The EU would probably agree, it doesn’t want a crash out either.

Simon: The clock is ticking. Tick tock.

Rebecca: I thought March 29th was a hard deadline for Britain to leave?

Peter: By law it is, but there are always ways around things in the EU.

Simon: If you’re May then you need a hard deadline to get a deal through Parliament.

She needs approval for her deal and so far she hasn’t got it. I think she’s trying to run down the clock so that members of Parliament (MPs) panic and fall into line.

The trouble is … some of them believe, or say they believe, that Britain can do perfectly well out of a no-deal Brexit.

Peter: That is the nut of the problem. Until now, May has seemed to put those sort of hardliners (and her desire to keep them in a united Conservative Party) above the need for a reasonable deal with the EU. It strikes a lot of Europeans on the continent that she has put party above country. But there’s not a lot they can do about it.

Simon: Do we need to talk about the flavors of Brexit? 

Pistachio is finished, sorry.

Peter: May risks ending up with humble pie as the only flavor on offer.

Rebecca: Wait, so Britain can leave on March 29th with or without a deal. Are people referring to that as hard or soft? (Now I want soft-serve ice cream.)  

Simon: Hard and soft Brexit is really about the end destination, not just the “divorce” on the table.

Hard Brexit means a clean break: Britain would have a free trade deal with the EU, similar to Canada and other large economies. But it would no longer have to follow all the rules of the EU.

A soft Brexit comes in various textures. But it keeps Britain in a tighter embrace with its European peers.

The basic trade-off is autonomy vs. access. Does Britain want access to EU markets? Fine, then Britain has to play by the EU’s rules. Does Britain want autonomy? Fine, then the EU and Britain will have a trade deal but Britain shouldn’t expect any favors.

Rebecca: So how do we get to that destination? The EU and Britain seem to be playing a game of chicken.

Simon: Free trade chicken!

Peter: Or chlorinated chicken if it comes in a free trade deal with the USA.

Rebecca: This conversation is making me hungry, and more confused. The EU and Britain seem to be on a collision course. Who's going to give in?

Simon: That is the million-euro question.

Peter: Well, it’s the same with all negotiations. If there is going to be a deal, both sides are going to have to make compromises. Which means stopping the game of chicken, stomping on the brakes, and getting out of their cars to talk.

But May has to contend with people in her party who don’t want to talk: As far as they are concerned, going off the road is an adventure, not necessarily driving into a ditch. And on the other hand, Europe is not going to reopen talks on a deal that has already been done.

Rebecca: So it sounds like the members of Parliament need to get it together. What’s stopping them from doing that?

Simon: I blame cake. Or rather cakeism. One of the prevailing -isms that make covering Brexit something of a parallel universe.

Brexit boosters assured the British public they could have their cake and eat it, when it came to leaving the EU.

Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, actually used this analogy. He’s not known for his precision or policy detail, but he definitely was onto something.

Since then, everyone pushing their version of Brexit in Britain has been susceptible to cakeism.

Which is how we ended up in deadlock. Because you can’t have your cake AND eat it. Sadly, for cake lovers everywhere.

Peter: There is also a special breed of cakeist known as a unicorn hunter, don’t forget. He (or she) who spends his (or her) time tracking mythical beasts, such as totally unrealistic concessions from the EU.

And to be honest, I think that there has been too much unicorn hunting, and raising of unrealistic expectations, for the British public. The way the whole Brexit negotiations have been handled over the past couple of years represents a pretty depressing failure of political leadership, and that has left voters on both sides of the debate angry and depressed.

Simon: The latest example of unicorn hunting was last week’s effort by the ruling Conservative Party to come together.

They proposed something called the Malthouse Compromise. Sounds like a bad airport novel, doesn’t it?

The compromise – named after a Conservative MP called Kit Malthouse – basically boiled down to a Brexit deal with a reworked Ireland backstop and a highly imaginative application of World Trade Organization rules.

It took about 10 minutes for the flaws to become apparent and another day for EU negotiators to let it be known that, no, sorry, that unicorn does not exist and they would not agree to the Malthouse Compromise. Just like the others before it.

Peter: OMG he mentioned the Ireland backstop. Now you’ve done it, Simon. You have to explain!!!

Simon: Oh no, the backstop.

Rebecca: It’s some sort of analogy right?

Peter: ...Deathly hush from Simon...

Simon: It’s a cricket analogy, of course. Beyond that, well...

Peter: As you say: well.

Let’s keep this as simple as possible, but bear in mind that the whole Brexit agreement now hinges on “backstop” arrangements on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The 1998 peace deal that ended the strife in Northern Ireland abolished a ‘hard’ border between the two. That was OK because both were in the same trade bloc. But on March 30th, Northern Ireland will not be in the EU anymore.

Brussels and London agree Brexit should not upset the peace deal, and if the EU and UK negotiate the free trade deal they envisage there will be no problem.

But if they don’t, the EU is insisting on a ‘backstop’ arrangement under which Northern Ireland would stay part of the EU customs union.

But if that happens, Northern Ireland would not be under the same law as the rest of the United Kingdom. Not so united. And no British government would accept that.

The only way out would be if the whole of the UK stayed in the customs union. But ‘hard’ Brexiters wont accept that. May is stuck between that rock and that hard place.

Simon: Sounds intractable, right?

Peter: Intractabilissimus.

Simon: Actually I think there are ways to fix this problem....

Peter: Make that man prime minister!

Simon: Northern Ireland stays in the customs union. Britain is out. Goods can be checked when they cross the Irish Sea.

Now the reason why that is not on the table is simple political math.

May’s government is propped up in Parliament by 10 MPs from Northern Ireland.

So what they say goes. If she wants to stay in power. And they say, “no way” to a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.


Simon: I find it ironic that the US is convulsed by political fighting over building a border wall.

And the UK is convulsed by political fighting over how NOT to put up a border barrier.

“Don’t Build The Wall!”

Rebecca: But why is this issue over the Irish border called a backstop?

Simon: The backstop in cricket is like the catcher in baseball. The last man stopping the ball from going out.

Think of the backstop as an insurance policy. The backstop is there to stop the ball (i.e., Brexit) smashing the window of peace in Northern Ireland.

Peter: Make that man poet laureate!

Rebecca: So there needs to be some kind of agreement on this issue, which means there needs to be a deal right?

Peter: Rebecca, if there is no agreement on the ‘backstop’ there will be no agreement on Brexit, and Britain will crash out without a deal on March 29th, leading to all sorts of problems.

Or the British government will ask for more time, or there might be a second referendum on Brexit, or there might be elections. Lots of dramatic possibilities, but on the street, there are an awful lot of BOBs (people who are “Bored of Brexit”). Have you come across many in the UK, Simon?

Simon: Britain is BOB central. You wouldn’t know it from the news headlines but lots of people are sick of the whole thing.

Peter: On my side of the channel, in Paris, it’s hard to find many people who care much either. Partly it’s because Britain has always been a bit ‘semi detached’ from the European Union, partly it’s because continental Europeans have just got other more important things to worry about.

Rebecca: Why should people pay attention to every turn and machination? Every little detail seems really exhausting, but the consequences are so serious.

Simon: I’ve been back and forth to Britain for the last three months covering the ins and outs of Brexit so it’s easy to get caught up in the details.

Remember, Rebecca, that there are millions of EU citizens living in Britain on the basis of EU membership allowing internal migration, just as Texans move to New York.

The question of their right to remain is up in the air. And no matter how many assurances they hear from British leaders there is a lot of unease and a sense of not being as welcome as before. We don’t know how this ends.

I totally understand why Europeans are bored of British intransigence. Lots of misunderstandings and misgivings all around.

Peter: And don’t forget that a lot is hanging on this economically, too. Investment in the British car industry has fallen by EIGHTY PERCENT over the last year as a result of uncertainty over Britain’s future.

There is no getting away from the fact that if this all ends as badly as it might, Britain is simply not going to be as attractive a place to invest as it is now. Companies are going to move to the place where they sell most goods – continental Europe – and they will take a lot of jobs with them.

Rebecca: The future of Britain really is at stake both economically and the way people see it. What do you both think is the most likely way Britain will leave?

Simon: I’ll go first.

Peter: Brave man...

Simon: I don’t see any other deal on the table. May will go back to Parliament and there will be defections from the opposition that will get her over the line.

She will have to disappoint the hard Brexiters on her side. No other way to square the circle. Probably an extension of a few months will be needed to pass all the necessary legislation.

Then we move on to the negotiations for what comes next. And that is going to take years.

Peter: That means you expect her to swallow the backstop and risk being remembered as “the prime minister who destroyed the Union.” Does she have the courage for that? I agree that your scenario is the most likely, but this is going to be a cliffhanger till the very last minutes of March 29th, I suspect.

Rebecca: It seems like a slow crawl to the 29th from here.

Simon: OK Rebecca, what do you think? You’ve heard what we have to say about unicorns and cake and backstops. Where do you see Brexit going?

Rebecca: This March 29th deadline seems like an internal deadline the UK needed to kick itself into gear to agree to something. It seems like they have to agree to something, whether that means they ask the EU for more time or they somehow agree by the 29th. I can’t see them going off the cliff.

But really I don’t know.

Peter: That makes three of us. Uncertainty has been the name of this game for the past two and a half years, since the British electorate voted to leave the EU but without deciding exactly how. And I think you are right – it will stay uncertain till the end.

Rebecca: Thank you both for your time!

Simon: Great. Time for lunch.

Rebecca: Have some free trade chicken and/or soft serve, both of which I’m very much craving now.

Peter: I shall have some supper and then must run to choir practice.

Simon: Ciao, Peter.

Peter: Ciao. This has been fun. Let’s do it again sometime.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Did you enjoy this conversation format? Let us know.

Jacob Turcotte and Rebecca Asoulin/Staff, Photos by AP
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