Brexit: A Cat with Nine Lives


By: Adam Steinhouse


The United Kingdom was supposed to leave the European Union on March 29 and then on April 12, but is now benefiting from another extension of its membership until October 31. In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised a famous thought experiment in which a cat is enclosed in a box with a piece of radioactive material which could decay at any point and kill the animal: until someone opens the box to check on it, the animal could be considered to be both alive and dead at the same time. Just as this imaginary cat seems to exist simultaneously in two states at once, so the UK seems to be living both within and outside the EU. There is now a recognised term in the British political lexicon: “Schrödinger’s Brexit,” otherwise known as “Brexit-in-name-only,” where the country seems condemned to exist in both states in perpetuity.


How has the UK arrived at this impasse?

In public opinion, the topic of Brexit has persisted as the principal line of division in the country since the referendum on EU membership in June 2016. Professor John Curtice, of the University of Strathclyde, calls the UK a nation of Brexit identifiers: in a sophisticated panel which he organised in October 2018, he found that far more people feel a strong attachment to Remain or Leave than consider themselves to be a supporter of a political party. Almost half (44%) of respondents were very strong supporters of either Remain or Leave, as opposed to only 9% who expressed strong backing for any political party.


In politics, the impact of the early election held in June 2017 is the key to understanding the current deadlock. The governing Conservatives emerged with a minority of seats and formed a majority in parliament with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hardline party committed chiefly to the maintenance of the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Prime Minister Theresa May did not reach out to the opposition Labour party or set up a cross-party Brexit policy committee. Instead she relied on the traditional highly confrontational system in the House of Commons. Almost all votes on Brexit since then have gone along party lines, despite the exacerbated divisions within the two main parties.

There has also been a longstanding logical explanation to the Brexit stalemate. From the outset, after the referendum, Prime Minister May did not want to make a choice between access for the UK to the EU single market on the one hand, and the ability to make independent trade deals and to restrict immigration on the other. Her purpose was to keep together all factions of the Conservative party, both the extreme and soft Brexiters. May said in her first big Brexit speech, to the Conservative party conference in October 2016, that the UK would be “a fully independent sovereign country.” There was thus no clarity about how the UK would deal with the EU single market or whether it might remain in a customs union with the EU.


This indecision was highlighted when it came to the Northern Irish border. There was an irresolvable trilemma: access to the EU single market, independent trade policy, no hard border on the island of Ireland. Either Northern Ireland would stay outside the EU and therefore have a border with the Republic of Ireland / EU and checks on people and customs duties, or there would have to be a special arrangement for the North of Ireland, which could put its association with the rest of the UK at risk. In the draft UK-EU withdrawal deal, the proposed solution to this impossible situation was a promise for Northern Ireland to maintain “full alignment” with the EU customs union and single market in the absence of an eventual UK-EU trade deal. This insurance policy – the “backstop” – was meant to be a temporary measure to rule out a hard border between the north and south of Ireland, but to most observers it looked like it would be a permanent solution and therefore a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader in the House of Commons, announced on March 29, 2019, when the UK was initially supposed to leave the EU: “I think it would be actually better staying in the European Union than living under this Withdrawal Agreement.”


If the UK wants to maintain territorial integrity, there are only two ways out of the Brexit quagmire: stay in the EU and the single market or adopt a customs union. Even in a customs union, there would still need to be regulatory checks between the two parts of Ireland, although not necessarily at a border checkpoint. From the perspective of the EU, there has been an unwillingness since the start of the negotiations with the UK to compromise on its fundamental principles, the indivisibility of the single market’s four freedoms of movement for goods, services, capital and people.

The other position so often discussed in recent months has been for the UK to leave without a withdrawal deal with the EU: there would be a hard border on the island of Ireland but the UK would have the freedom to pursue independent trade deals. However repeated votes in the House of Commons have produced only one point of agreement: to avoid such a no-deal Brexit.


So the state of paralysis, of living and not-living in the EU box, continues. After the Withdrawal Agreement was voted down a third time, by a majority of 58 votes, on March 29, Prime Minister May declared, “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.” In the absence of a parliamentary majority for her Conservative party, she then tried a new plan of talking to the opposition Labour party about the path forward. This project has little likelihood of overcoming the tribal nature of UK politics, as the Labour party has every incentive to oppose the Prime Minister in the hope that the political standstill will force an election.

The criticism of Schrödinger’s experiment is simple: in reality, the cat is actually either dead or alive, whether or not it has been observed. There is no superposition of the two states. The British are still in the European Union and could leave or stay in the period up to and beyond October 31. John Crace, the parliamentary sketch writer of the Guardian newspaper, wrote on March 29 about the failure to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement: “Everything was up for grabs in Schrödinger’s Brexit: when we were leaving, if we were leaving and how we were leaving; who would be the prime minister, and if there would be a general election. Anything and everything was still possible. Parliament had said something but no one could interpret the language it was speaking.”

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