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A divorce can be nasty business. In most cases, one party wants to leave and the other party wants them to stay. In some cases, one side makes threats – normally financial in nature – that would prove disastrous to both. In the worst cases, children are used as weapons to hurt the other. A divorce is a form of madness where rage dominates, and both sides are often willing to destroy everything just to keep the other from getting what they want.

The United Kingdom filed for divorce from the European Union a little over 17 months ago. The EU wants the breakup to hurt the U.K., even if it hurts the EU in the process. In fact, in its delusional madness, Brussels is saying the union won’t be hurt by the loss of Europe’s second-largest economy. The British, as the side that started the divorce, has mixed feelings on it. It swings from empathetic to vindictive.

Then there are the children, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They’re hostages in this negotiation, with the Europeans demanding one thing, the British another, and the Irish of all stripes fearing Brexit will separate them.

This is the point where I might say we shouldn’t carry this analogy too far, but it is very much a case where the analogy can’t be carried too far. When I listen to some EU figures hurling threats at the U.K., insisting that they are impervious to retaliation, or British politicians saying they should just leave, kids be damned – divorce is the only metaphor.

Geopolitics usually depersonalizes these things. The British have had a complex relationship with the Continent, and for centuries they have used the relationship to serve their own interests. Their marriage to Europe was never a passionate love affair. They were wary of European integration, and the French even wanted to keep them out. It was a union based on cold calculation, a marriage for money. Such divorces ought to be simple.

In this divorce, however, there is an emotional component that goes beyond money and position. There is a deep-seated hatred and resentment at play. It is rooted in centuries of Europe looking across the channel at perfidious Albion, and Britain looking back and seeing a continent of garlic eaters. For a time, it appeared that they could get along, and even be happy working together. Now the Europeans feel that the British betrayed them, and the British are torn over whether they ought to stay for the money or give into the fact that they really loathe their European partners.

But they are also at the point in the divorce where, even if they stayed, the marriage would never be the same again. Even two old fortune hunters can reach the point of no return. Still, they can’t just avoid one another. In marriage, there are too many ties for the lawyers to sever all.

There is no going back. It is only a question of whether, as in “The War of the Roses” (an old movie you must see to understand Brexit), they will find themselves destroying each other to get the last word. Geopolitical theory says they can’t be so irrational, but divorce makes people behave in strange ways. I suspect it will end as most divorces do: with a cold but amicable settlement, followed by a calming of the storm. But will the children ever be the same?

This article originally appeared on and is republished with permission.



6 Comments on "Britain and Europe’s Messy Divorce"

  1. Gian Marco Schwier | 7th December 2017 at 10:47 am | Reply

    Hard to agree on what Mr Friedman says. Of course, the EU does not want to make Brexit a success story for Britain, for it might encourage other nations to leave too.
    On the other hand, the “divorce” is messy because the gouverment of Ms May is in disarray, has no plan and generally perceived more as “weak and wobbly” than “strong and stable”.
    While taking different approaches or using different narratives is usually a good way to broaden ones prspective, it should have good arguments, which I find lacking. I see a metaphor and no reason while the point of Mr. Friedmand should be better than the more widely received view of the chaotic gouvernment in London and the unforgiving 27 others.

  2. Well, you can push the analogy too far, so here goes. We, the (the English and Welsh) are the abused spouse trying to escape an increasingly controlling partner (see what I did there?) The kids want to stay with the partner. More fool them. They will lose their identity, and become a province in the United States of Europe. Look at their history and ask yourself if that is how they really see themselves. We were coerced into first the Common Market and then into the EC by the use of lies. The methods have not and will not change. Such is politics and the corruption of democracy.

    • Or, perhaps, the kids (Wales and Scotland) are being dragged by their abusive father (England) away from their mother (Europe)… Analogies can be drawn either way but it doesn’t make them any more or less truthful.

  3. As I recall, David, Wales voted out, and Northern Ireland is not really European minded, that’s all about money. Scotland might claim to be more Europhile on account of their historical friendship with France, but even that is more anti English than pro Europe. Why some of them want out from under the English in order to go under the EC escapes me. I’m sorry if this seems simple minded to you, but they will have less sovereignty but possibly more money. Or possibly not. Worth the gamble? In any case, them getting more per head than the English doesn’t sound like abuse to me.

    • Not simple-minded and I don’t know why you think I would think that. I was just pointing out that analogies are unreliable and can be made to fit whichever argument you want. I also believe the politics of Brexit are so complicated and difficult that nearly everybody (possibly even everybody) argues from a point of sentimental engagement with the issues rather than hard logic. It’s why I no longer argue over Brexit. It’s generally pointless. It’s like arguing why you like one movie over another.

  4. The politics are complicated but the issues are not. Everybody voted for Brexit for a variety of reasons, most of them simple to the people who held them. I voted because of sovereignty, or the loss of it rather. For me that is of over-riding importance, and is quite simple.

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