The Colour of Brexit

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A (oil on fiberbroad, 1948). The painting provides for a a more accurate description of how Brexit will actually look like.

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A (oil on fiberbroad, 1948). The painting provides for a a more accurate description of how Brexit will actually look like.

The most famous Oracle in ancient Greece was the one in Delphi. There, its High Priestess Pythia was providing for ambivalent prophecies about the future. Theresa May is definitely not associated with an oracle but her statements on Brexit are often somewhat pythic. According to the Prime Minister, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and she is determined to make a success of it. When she is pressed to give more details, she reassures everyone that she wants to get the ‘best deal for Britain’. Lately, she called for ‘a red, white and blue Brexit’ pointing to the fact that Britain will not opt for some off-the-self model like the ‘Norway’ or the ‘Swiss’ models. Instead, the UK aspires to have a unique relationship with the EU.

Those comments were made during the second day of the judicial proceedings in Miller where the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether it is the Government or the Parliament that can trigger Article 50 TEU. More importantly, they were made on a day when the lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier provided for the starting position of the other 27 Member States in the Brexit negotiations. Charming as May’s comments may sound, when seen in the wider context of the debates both on the procedure (Miller case) and the substance (Barnier press conference) of the Brexit process, they seem lacking the necessary detail and precision that the most important political decision that the UK has taken in a generation requires. The Prime Minister would have to abandon soon those slogans and explain her strategy. To this effect, the fact that she has accepted to reveal her plans before triggering Article 50 is a good development.

Notwithstanding, her description of the ideal Brexit colours is still somewhat problematic. When Theresa May refers to a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, she clearly points to the ‘Union flag’. From a point of view of semiotics, this is rather interesting. The flag is a synthesis of the red cross of Saint George (patron of England) and the Cross of St Patrick (patron of Ireland) superimposed on the Saltire of Saint Andrew (patron of Scotland). In other words, the deep blue and the diagonal red lines of the flag come from those two UK nations, which voted to remain in the EU. A truly ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ would require that their views would be taken seriously into account and that their governments would be consulted during the negotiations. Differently, Brexit will just have the colours of St’ George’s Cross.

Even, if a UK-wide position is achieved, however, Brexit would still have more colours than red, white and blue. According to Article 50 TEU, in order a withdrawal agreement to be reached, a qualified majority of the other 27 Member States would have to approve it.  By referring just to the British colours, Theresa May conveniently forgets that the UK cannot unilaterally dictate the terms of Brexit. The UK-EU relationship cannot be redrafted by the UK alone. The other 27 Member States would not consent to such agreement unless their fundamental economic and political interests are respected. Of course, if one reads some of the British tabloids, she would be convinced that the Europeans are ready to bend the need in order to keep selling their cars and their wines to the UK. However, there is very little supporting evidence in the continental press that this is the case.

More importantly, such views do not prepare the UK public for the compromise that any Brexit agreement would entail. In fact, they create an environment of a zero-sum game where there will be losers and winners that will be wearing red, white and blue jerseys. In such polarised environment it would be very difficult to convince the UK public that a ‘multicoloured’ Brexit is the appropriate way forward.

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