World News

6 Months Before Brexit, Many in UK Fear ‘It’s Looking Very Grisly’

Posted September 30, 2018 1:47 p.m. EDT

LONDON — When Theresa May appears on stage at the Conservative Party’s annual meeting this week, it will take all her determination to drown out the ticking of an invisible clock.

One hundred and eighty days stand between Britain and an uncontrolled exit from the European Union. Then it will be 179, 178. …

After two years of negotiation, Britain has reached a moment of consequence for the process known as Brexit. The insulating layer of time that had protected the country from a potentially failed divorce from the bloc is thinning. Soon, it will be gone.

What this could mean for ordinary Britons has been seeping into the newspapers, sometimes in leaks from secret government reports: Northern Ireland has only one energy link to the mainland, so a no-deal Brexit could lead to rolling blackouts and steep price rises; and the energy system could collapse, forcing the military to redeploy generators from Afghanistan to the Irish Sea.

With an eye toward the March 29 deadline, the government has appointed a minister to guarantee food supplies. Pharmaceutical companies are planning a six-week stockpile of lifesaving medications like insulin and considering flying planeloads of medicine into the country until imports resume. That is if planes can still land in Britain — something thrown into doubt after the government admitted that aircraft could, in theory, be grounded by a sudden exit.

In many ways, the country is in the same position it was on the morning after the 2016 referendum: without a clear plan.

British leaders remain mired in infighting, presenting competing visions as the Brexit countdown enters its final stage. On Friday, Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister and standard-bearer for the hard-Brexit faction, proposed starting over with a tougher negotiating approach, hinting that he might try to topple May in the coming weeks.

Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader, rallied his own troops in Liverpool last week and all but promised that Parliament would vote down any deal that May could strike.

In the meantime, there is a strange calm, as if the country is waiting to see if a storm will make landfall. On Twitter, novelist Robert Harris recently compared the atmosphere to the months before Britain entered World War I, when authorities watched helplessly as they were dragged toward war by the momentum of events.

“We’re just rolling toward the cliff, and nobody out there is going to stop it,” said Bill Wolsey, who owns a chain of hotels, pubs and restaurants based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

An abrupt Brexit, he said, would increase the cost of supplies and electricity in Northern Ireland by 20 percent and curtail the flow of tourists from Europe, who are the backbone of his business.

“It’s a strange time,” he said. “How many times have we heard this attitude through history — that it will all be sorted — and then nothing’s sorted? I personally think nothing will be sorted.”

‘A Rough Ride’

In the two years that have elapsed since the 2016 vote, Britons have been replaying arguments for and against leaving the European Union.

Was Brexit, as Johnson would argue, an act of emancipation that would breathe life into a once-proud imperial power? Or was it, as his opponents would contend, a gesture of rage by communities that feel left behind by global capitalism, egged on by politicians’ false promises and tabloid-fueled xenophobia?

So deep were the fissures in her Cabinet that it took May two years to produce a proposal — known as Chequers, after her country residence where it was forged — that would keep some of Britain’s close economic ties to the bloc.

May says her ideas would remove the need for checks on the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the EU. But that plan was blown apart at a summit in Salzburg, Austria, where other European leaders decided it was too much like Johnson’s boast that, with Brexit, Britain could have its cake and eat it, too.

“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” declared President Emmanuel Macron of France. “It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.”

On arriving home, the prime minister got no more comfort from a vocal pro-Brexit section of her party.

“Theresa May is in for a rough ride,” Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative member of Parliament, said last week. “She’s flogging this horse of Chequers. It’s flogging a dead horse. I’m not sure it’s not the last horse she’s got to ride.”

With six months until Britain’s scheduled departure, a void remains, leaving Britain stuck — unable to move forward or to rethink Brexit without risking a backlash from those who voted for withdrawal.

May’s supporters say privately that delaying is a good negotiating tactic, and that her leverage will increase as the cliff edge looms closer. There is some truth to this. Other EU nations would be damaged economically by a disorderly Brexit. And her critics in Parliament, where she has no real majority, may agree to any deal she can bring back if the alternative is imminent chaos.

Her team plays down the dangers, at least for now.

“There are certainly risks of short-term disruption,” Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, said in a recent interview with the international media.

“We can manage down some of those risks, and we can avoid some of them,” he said, though he conceded that this was not completely in his power and that avoiding disruption “will require goodwill on both sides.” Even if May ultimately squeaks a deal through — and many believe she will — the spectacle of the two-year Brexit paralysis has permanently shaped international perceptions of Britain, said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy firm.

“It makes the United Kingdom look like the torn, deeply divided polity that it is,” he said. “It’s a country that is inwardly focused, has infinitely wobbly politics, and will likely have trouble finding direction on many issues going forward. That’s not good. It’s a deeply divided, stuck political system. The cogs are grinding, and they will continue to.”

‘No Evident Way Out’

If May can reach a deal with the European Union and then get it through Parliament, that would trigger a 20-month period during which little would change while the details of future trade are worked out. In the meantime, many business owners are preparing for a worst-case scenario.

Charles Owen, who runs bars and restaurants for British tourists in the Alps, made the “deeply painful” decision to sell two of his four venues. Still, the situation remains “scary,” he said, as some of his employees — many of whom are British — could lose their right to work in the bloc after March 29.

“I have no idea of what the legality of those people working in my bars and restaurants will be in the last four weeks of the skiing season,” he said. “It’s scary.”

A report from Barclays Bank suggests that an abrupt departure from the EU would cost the food and drink industry 9.3 billion pounds, or about $12 billion, in additional tariffs, with a new average tariff of 27 percent.

“It’s looking very grisly,” said Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents much of that sector. “And there is no evident way out.” AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company, says it has spent 40 million pounds to duplicate some of its facilities in mainland Europe so that supplies will not be interrupted next spring.

This summer, one of Britain’s top health care regulators jolted diabetics by warning in an interview with The Pharmaceutical Journal that supplies of insulin could run out. Britain manufactures only a small fraction of the insulin its citizens need.

“It’s something that we need to make sure doesn’t happen,” said Michael Rawlins, chairman of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. “It could be a reality if we don’t get our act together. We can’t suddenly start manufacturing insulin — it’s got to be sorted, no question.”

Jim Moore, 47, a journalist who injects himself with insulin four times a day, has written about his anxiety over insulin supplies, notwithstanding the assurances he has received from officials.

“There is still the sense that they’re far too sensible to let something like this happen,” he said in an interview. “There’s a false kind of calm. It’s as if we’re waiting at the station, saying, ‘We’ll get this sorted out in the end.’ And it preys on my mind, because what if it doesn’t?”