Caught in Zugzwang

Any move the UK makes with Brexit will dramatically weaken its current global and domestic positions…but they must move and quickly

24 January 2019

Galan Dall

Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight

London has several options and none of them are good for the UK. Either breaking out the hard way or reversing the process will have severe implications for the government and the British political culture.


Brexit was the focus of the most recent V/I breakfast, and this article incorporates some of the ideas shared around the table on this complicated and enthralling topic though the conclusions are the author’s own.

The situation essentially boils down to this, any move by the UK government to soften, harden or delay the process harms the country, and yet with the clock ticking, they must make a decision and move swiftly.

Traps and gambits

As Teresa May’s deal was soundly defeated last week by the largest loss in parliamentary history, there is little hope the deal will make it past the legislative body, even though recently there has been some Brexit hardliners softening to her position. Assuming her original deal (or a close facsimile) won’t be accepted, the UK has a few possible options.

“No deal” 

The first option is the one favoured by many hardline Brexiteers, who believe that the UK reverting to WTO rules – including the necessary tariffs, customs inspections as well as what many speculate would lead to a devaluing of the pound, etc. – wouldn’t be a problem at all. David Davis, the first Brexit Secretary to resign, doesn’t see this last point as a disadvantage since he believes UK industries have been unable to compete with other countries, a situation he blames on the overvalued currency.

However, the problems with this first scenario are various, and it is often referred to collectively by conservatives, centralists and progressives as the worst possible outcome. In order to even make it feasible, the government should have made extensive preparations at its ports of entry, including at least custom’s infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which no one wants).

There is an additional problem associated with no deal: it doesn’t in fact solve any of the issues facing the British government. As soon as the UK crashes out of the EU, it would need to start negotiating a new trade deal with its largest trading partner, only it would then be doing so at an even weaker position than it is now.

Without going into the details of lorries backed up twenty miles or statements from the port authorities saying they could not be prepared for the level of increased traffic on the docks, it should be noted that the only clear majority in parliament is a rejection of no deal, so this is also rather unlikely though possible.

Renegotiating the deal with the EU

The second scenario involves Teresa May going back to Brussels to try to renegotiate the deal they have already agreed to. Since the EU has remained resolute and united, this again isn’t a true possibility unless the British Parliament would be willing to accept non-binding statements in order to save face. Even if they were capable of reopening the agreement, this would mean the EU is no longer bound to any of the concessions they made during the long, arduous process and could request the UK to either remain in the customs union or crash out.

Essentially, renegotiating the deal could bring more problems than solutions which is why both May’s government and the EU have not pursued this path with any vigour.

Extending the Brexit deadline

The third scenario is quite possible and in fact there are amendments from backbenchers to force this to a vote next week. However, while the European Court of Justice did rule that the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50, an extension of Brexit requires agreement from all remaining 27 countries, and there are some which might take advantage of that powerful position.

Furthermore, the EU has made it clear that the only reason they would allow for an extension would be for a “democratic” process (i.e. a general election or second referendum).

If this isn’t complex enough, there is an additional problem associated with extending article 50, the European elections. If the UK were to extend the date for departure past the end of June, they would need to hold elections for MEPs to serve in the next EU parliament with the knowledge that they will soon afterwards be recalled.

Withdrawing Article 50

The fourth scenario is perhaps political suicide and could cause some strife domestically, but it is the only option which the UK controls completely and which will be the most advantageous economically. There will be voters who will feel disaffected, their voices went unheard, and there are some stoking fears that it could bring a rise of the radical right into domestic British politics, more than presumably UKiP and the EDL already have.

However, there are the legislative concerns related to this option. Currently, the UK will be leaving the EU on 29 March, 2019, and this is written down in law. For this to be extended or revoked, there would need to be new legislation drawn up; it would have to be either accepted by the government or by the speaker for the bill to even be tabled for a vote; and then it would have to pass with a majority in parliament. While there might be momentum to extend Brexit or have a different deal on offer, ending Article 50 would possibly require whips from both major parties to drum up support.

That being said, many believe they have a democratic obligation to fulfil the “promise of Brexit”. The problem with this sentiment is that it forgets Brexit wasn’t clearly defined in the referendum, so offering the people a choice in selecting which form of Brexit they prefer could be a rather prudent course of action.

In any case, the complexity and uncertainty surrounding Brexit has led to the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbin – a previous and occasional supporter of Brexit – to buttress the potential call for a second referendum. Even more worrying for the government, this week Sony and P&O have announced they are relocated their headquarters to Europe. In a truly insulting manner, prominent Brexit campaigner James Dyson (who owns 100% of Dyson Ltd) said on Tuesday that his company will be relocating to Singapore in order to “future proof” the corporation, and that is should no longer be consider a British but global brand.

Four moves behind

The explanations given for how the UK arrived at its current predicament depends most likely on where one’s political sympathies lie.

For some, the trend of the EU to become more unified with policies and the hardship of being a net-contributor to the union became too much of a burden to bear when they could see people closer to home losing public services, even if the actual cause of those shortages stemmed from prolonged austerity measures.

Many Britons fretted about the increase in immigration from the EU and abroad, though particular fears were focused on those coming from Muslim-majority countries; negative feelings exacerbated often by Leave campaigners in a style reminiscent of Trump’s road to electoral success.

However, a considerable number were not moved by such arguments but felt the referendum was an opportunity to send a message to the political elites in both Brussels and Westminster that they were dissatisfied with the course the UK was heading. In an act of protest, these underrepresented pockets of the electorate helped send their country down a trajectory not really anticipated even by those casting their vote to leave the EU.

Lessons learned

There have been Eurosceptic voices screaming louder and louder in Central Europe; focusing on the same issues that plagued the Brexit campaign. Many are valid concerns reflecting the frustration of the masses with their disengaged and, in many cases, corrupt representatives; many more are spurious statements about “sovereignty” or the “threat” of multiculturalism, and there are numerous which are steeped in racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and nativism.

It is possible that one or two Central European countries could unintentionally exit the union through a mistimed referendum, but most likely they would either remain de facto members (as their economies are almost wholly dependent on the union) or face serious hardships if they attempt to make a more severe separation. And all of this is not lost on Central Europeans.

This is reflected in the fact that most Central Europeans do want to stay in the EU. The support in Poland, for instance, is broadly spread across demographics, but it is also shallow and could flip in the right circumstances.

Regardless of these domestic concerns, if the Central European countries are learning anything from the Brexit process, it is how not to exit.

A hardliner may argue to trigger Article 50 and just sit back and wait. Hopefully, they would make the required preparations which would take a minimum of 2 years, but at least this gives businesses and people a clear understanding of the future, something which is sorely lacking at the moment in Briton.

The global circumstances have upended the UK government’s plans, and this was out of their control. In any case, the triggering of Article 50 put a chain of events in motion which have left the government in a trap of their own making, knowing that a step in any direction will be detrimental to the citizens of their country, in one way or another.


Galan Dall

Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight

Galan Dall is the Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight. He has extensive editorial experience working in publishing with, for example, CultureScapes and Cities Magazine as well as writing for the LSE IDEAS Think Tank Ratiu Forum and editor for various GLOBSEC publications. He studied in the US at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his focuses are on the intersection of US/UK and Central European politics, including issues relating to LGBTQ+, women and minorities' rights.


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