Sep 17, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Brexit threatens to become a constitutional crisis

Fractured British flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Brexit omnishambles threatens to become a full-blown constitutional crisis, now that Boris Johnson's government has declared its intention to violate international law by breaking the very withdrawal treaty that Johnson negotiated, signed, declared a triumph, and ran on as the basis of his party's reelection.

For the record: Five former prime ministers have come out against Johnson's Internal Market Bill, which has already caused a slew of resignations from the government. The bill would allow the U.K. to unilaterally override the EU in a manner that explicitly violates Britain's treaty obligations.

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quoted another former PM, Margaret Thatcher, saying that "Britain does not break treaties"; Germany's Brexit rapporteur declared that "Britain is joining the ranks of despots" like North Korea.
  • American politicians of both parties, including Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, have said that if the bill is passed there is no chance of Britain signing a free trade deal with the U.S.

Context: The current crisis is an entirely foreseeable (and foreseen) consequence of the fact that Brexit is fundamentally impossible.

  • Peace on the island of Ireland requires that there be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
  • National unity means that there can be no customs or border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
  • The border between the U.K. and the EU has to go somewhere, however.

What's next: Johnson claims that his bill fulfills a manifesto commitment and that it must therefore be passed by the upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords. The Lords are likely to think otherwise.

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

The stock market has a clear answer to the question of which is worse, Brexit or Trump.

  • Since the beginning of 2016, when both outcomes seemed conceivable but implausible, U.S. investors have seen their domestic stock portfolios rise by 65%. Their U.K. stocks, however, are down 15%.
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