While the breakup of artificial states like Ukraine was inevitable as early as the 1990s, even as recently as two years ago, the idea that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would break up would have been considered fanciful by most. Now however, what once seemed impossible now carries the distinct aroma of inevitability.
While the 1999 era power-sharing agreement in the disputed territory of Northern Ireland looked to settle a long running conflict, Britain’s exit from the European Union has thrown Anglo-Irish relations into disarray all over again. Because the European Union will not countenance an open border between a member state like the Republic of Ireland and a soon to be non-member state like the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the very foundation of openness on which the Northern Ireland power sharing establishment was built was thrown into chaos. Now, in a desperate move to remain in power, the British Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed with Brussels that should a future customs agreement between London and the EU come undone, Northern Ireland would retain a special status that would immediately draw it closer to the Republic of Ireland and further from the United Kingdom. Even before such an event might occur, the present Brexit agreement already treats Northern Ireland as a political unit distinct from the rest of the UK. With demographic trends in Northern Ireland already moving in the direction of a slim but nevertheless politically significant Roman Catholic majority, it now seems as though the prospect of a united Ireland is now a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
But it is not just the long troubled Northern Ireland that might make the term ‘United Kingdom’ take a Brexit from the atlas into the history books. The very foundation of the majority of the UK, Great Britain is also in jeopardy of falling apart. Scottish voters, unlike their English and Welsh compatriots voted to remain in the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum. As the separatist Scottish National Party which controls the devolved Scottish Parliament has said throughout the Brexit process, if the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU are not to the liking of most Scots, ministers in Edinburgh will call for another referendum on Scottish independence.
Even beyond the islands of Britain and Ireland, signs of the UK losing its will to be itself have sprung up. Last week, Spain threatened to veto the EU-UK Brexit deal if the status of Gibraltar was not settled to Madrid’s satisfaction. Like Northern Ireland, Gibraltar is a small piece of territory ruled by Britain in spite of the fact that it is attached to another country, in Gibraltar’s case, to Spain. Yet rather than putting up a fight, Theresa May gave into Spain’s demands and set in forth an agreement that will ultimately allow Gibraltar to be de-facto ruled by Spain in spite of a forlorn British flag flying above the region’s parliament.
Of course, the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Gibraltar are all entitled to exercise their right to national self determination at any point. Yet the fact remains that a United Kingdom that not long ago existed in a functional union of three and a half nations has been sacrificed in the name not even of Brexit but in the name of a Prime Minister who refuses to do the dignified thing and resign in the face of widespread unpopularity among not only her own party but the country at large.
Not since Romanian megalomaniac Nicolae Ceaușescu famously made a speech from his balcony overlooking central Bucharest in a seemingly oblivious plea to remain in power before a nation that clearly wanted him out has someone been exposed as so intoxicated with remaining in office that they are willing to sacrifice their entire nation in order to cling on to the reins of a horse that has long since bolted from the stable. Yet like Ceaușescu in 1989, while May is still in office, she is hardly in power. The last bit of power she has left is surrendering ever more of her own nation to the winds of change.
Through all of this, May has failed to deliver the kind of Brexit that most supporters of British withdrawal from the European Union want, while she has equally displeased those in favour of remaining in the European Union by promoting an agreement that literally offers the worst of both worlds. In the process, May has set in motion the wheels for the United Kingdom to become a defunct union while the European Union if anything will expand further into the Balkans sometime in the next decade as Serbia, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina look to join the EU.
It is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that while some in Britain had hoped that Brexit might trigger other European nations to reconsider their relationship with the rest of the European Union – the only Union which is being killed off by Brexit is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is not the specific fault of Brexit per se but is instead the doing of a British Prime Minister with no background in foreign policy but an insatiable urge to remain in a place where no one wants her – in power. One of the least wanted women in the world refuses to exit in spite of the fact that her exit would be far more popular than Brexit has ever been or likely ever will be.