The clock is ticking toward March 29, 2019. On that date, the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union. Typical of the nebulousness since the "Leave" vote back on June 23, 2016, it remains unclear how this will happen – or even whether it will take place at all.
In the first quarter of 2019, there are three options for the United Kingdom: crash out of the European Union, stay in the European Union or accept a negotiated withdrawal agreement. All of them will certainly use up most of the energy of the British leadership. And that will be unfortunate for the rest of us, because the United Kingdom will likely be preoccupied at a time when the world sorely needs Britain's engagement.
If, 100 days from now, there is no agreement, then the United Kingdom will simply crash out of the European Union. The specific and unique problems this would cause are increasingly coming into focus: the highway to Dover packed with trucks requiring customs clearance, while perishable goods spoil and contract obligations aren't met; shortages of medicines or industrial components; confusion about the landing rights of foreign carriers in the United Kingdom and British carriers in Europe. The list goes on and on. It is pure denial to think that such very real scenarios wouldn't affect the strength of the pound or produce massive knock-on socio-economic effects that would be felt for weeks and months afterward. To this, one should add the eventual political ramifications: Expect more jockeying and changes in government personnel or the prospect that Scotland moves quickly to separate from England and seeks to rejoin the European Union.
The second option of staying in, on the other hand, would be less of an immediate economic problem but would have immediate political repercussions. Envision, rather, what happens if there were to be another referendum, and this time the "Remain" vote were to win; unless that win were crushing and decisive, those who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 would certainly express outrage that their original intent had been betrayed or otherwise stolen from them, further polarizing the political atmosphere in the United Kingdom. And doubtless the last two years of negotiations have soured relations between Britain and its erstwhile EU colleagues, preventing any feasible return to a status quo comity.
What is vexing for friends of Britain is the spectacle of a country losing not only its focus, but also its influence.
The third option – the settlement negotiated by the government of Prime Minister Theresa May – would make no one happy, but it would arguably achieve Brexit without a full-blown crisis. The problem with the third option is that no one wants it: Pro-Brexit Tories want a better deal, Labour apparently wants an early election to increase their chances of assuming control of the government, and anti-Brexit forces on all sides would lament this self-inflicted state of affairs that diminishes British influence in exchange for an unclear future. Most experts speculate that May will simply wait, hoping that others realize that any option other than hers would be worse. Expect frayed nerves and more twists and turns like the prime minister's recent decision to delay a parliamentary vote until the middle of next month.
In any of these scenarios, what is vexing for friends of Britain is the spectacle of a country losing not only its focus, but also its influence. Voices within the British government and the foreign policy community in London lament this turn of events and the accompanying level of frustration. It's likely that whatever the outcome, the United Kingdom simply does not have unlimited capacity to address the technical and political requirements of this crisis and yet continue its traditional engagement in world affairs. We shouldn't expect a lot of energy for debates on the future of foreign relations with China, or on specific problems from Venezuela to Korea to Afghanistan.
In a way, the most important part of what's happening because of Brexit is what's not happening because of Brexit. The opportunity cost is huge. Only with time will it become clear what the absence of the United Kingdom's talents, interests and clout in the global arena – during this dynamic period of global political, economic and technological change – will mean over the long term. Undoubtedly, new actors will drive solutions to global diplomatic and military issues, and we may see clever initiatives and new thinking. Sadly, one must fear that without full British attention, what materializes may not be as good as it could be with full British attention. And we'll all be the poorer for it.