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The Ides of May: Brexit, Irexit, and the Shape of Europe to Come

Since she succeeded David Cameron in the wake of the Brexit vote, the accidental British prime minister, Theresa May, has been trying without success to have things both ways. On the one hand she's having to pretend to observe the wishes of the British public, which voted to leave the European Union, but her own inclination -- shared by many Tory Remainers -- is to keep fumbling the football until the clock runs out. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, which is now led by an out-and-out communist in Jeremy Corbyn, is delighted with the whole mess.

Across the Irish Sea, Britain's ever-restive former colony, Ireland, is having its own troubles. The withdrawal from the EU by the United Kingdom will mean that the rump state of Northern Ireland (whose votes Mrs. May needs to keep her in power, as shaky as her current hold on it is now) will require some sort of border with the Republic to the south.

Meanwhile, in central Europe (where I am as I write this), the old European cultural fault line of the Alps that once divided the Protestant north from the Catholic south has been rotated vertically to the Oder-Neisse line, which used to simply separate postwar Germany from Poland, but now splits most of Western Europe from the former captive nations of Eastern Europe, with Germany, France, and Britain on one side and Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia on the other -- the group of four nations that constitute the Visegrad Group.

Each one of these flash points is fraught. If May can't work out a deal with the EU by March 29, it's entirely likely that her government will fall. Already, two of her cabinet ministers, the eccentric Boris Johnson and the steady, impressive David Davis, have resigned in protest over her handling of Brexit, and either of them could well succeed her as party leader should the Ides of May approach; Tory political circles at the moment resemble the plotting of Brutus, Cassius et al. in Shakespeare's play. Keep your eye on Davis, the former Brexit minister, who's something of a sleeper here, especially given his deep knowledge of the intricacies of Brexit itself.

Poetically, one of the major sticking points over Britain's departure from the EU is the Irish border. Since the Good Friday Agreement (the crowning achievement of the Clinton presidency) succeeded brilliantly in shutting down the sectarian violence of the Troubles, there have been no militarized checkpoints at the internal Irish line of division, but as the Brexit negotiations continue, the EU has been pushing for a hard customs border, which neither the Irish nor the British want. Despite the sometimes rancorous relations between the two nations, Ireland and England have long had a de facto open border, with people and goods moving relatively freely between the two countries, even after partition and independence. But the EU bigwigs in Brussels see the revival of the hard border question as yet another stick with which to beat Britain.