Oliver talks Brexit, the European Union talks, and a certain gentleman named Lord Buckethead on this week’s Last Week Tonight.
At first, we hoped that the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union – popularly called “Brexit” – was only a blip in an otherwise progressive international future. Then, the United States elected Donald Trump, France flirted with the far-right National Front party, and ultra-conservative nationalist politics seemed to be on the rise.
That’s why, from a progressive point of view, the results of Britain’s recent snap election were grimly satisfying. But, as John Oliver explained, this is no reason to breathe easy just yet. The UK and the rest of the EU have a long way to go.
In case you have just emerged from a centuries-long sleep in a distant woodland cave, Oliver took a few minutes to catch you up to speed. After Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative party won big in the summer of 2016. Just last April, she announced a snap election, though the UK was not due for one until 2020.
The snap election was intended to bolster May and her fellow Conservative politicians. From a logistical standpoint, who could blame her? According to early polls, May’s party stood to win big in the election. Indeed, they were set to win by a landslide.
Except a series of tragic terror attacks, flip-flopping statements, and awkward interviews from May turned the tables. Seriously, when asked about her “naughtiest” moment, May fumblingly recalled running through wheat fields as a child. Oliver later dubbed her “Thatcher in the rye” for that meandering, vaguely embarrassing response.
The progressive Labour Party, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, won so many seats that the Conservatives lost their majority and now face a hung Parliament.
May is in some seriously hot water. Not only has her party been embarrassed and greatly reduced, but there are also rumors that she is facing leadership challenges from other Conservatives. And, whether or not you agree with her politics, surely it’s cringe-worthy to hear news commentators discuss her makeup and whether or not she was crying shortly before a speech.
Of course, perhaps one of the oddest indignities came from a unique requirement of UK politics. All candidates are required to stand on stage while elections are called. This meant that both May and Corbyn stood next to someone in an Elmo suit (who won three votes).
Even more striking, they were facing off against “Lord Buckethead”, a supposed intergalactic space lord who won 249 votes. Lord Buckethead, clad in all black leather and sporting a tall bucket-shaped helmet, ran on a unique platform. He said that he would abolish all lords (except for himself, of course), and that they should “stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Start buying lasers from Lord Buckethead.”
Said Oliver, “British politics, when done well, can be very fun”.
Joking aside, however, Oliver pointed out the awkward timing of this election. Brexit negotiations are set to begin a week from this Monday. With her party reeling and her country’s government in near turmoil, how is May supposed to actually negotiate? So far, her plans for a Brexit – or at least her explanations for it – have been frustratingly vague.
This gets very complicated, very fast
And that’s a seriously big deal. Leaving the EU isn’t as simple as closing a door or changing the design on your passport. Instead, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions that must be made.
Some of these decisions are wide and far-reaching. For example, how will the EU settle its financial agreements with the EU? Some estimate that this comes out to an astonishing €100 billion. Meanwhile, what will happen to British farmers? About 60-65% of UK agriculture exports go to the EU. A harsh trade deal – which is likely, given the EU officials want to discourage other countries from making their own exits – could impose big tariffs on British exports.
What will they make of immigration laws? There are now about 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, with a further 1.2 million British citizens living throughout Europe. Where will they live? How will the UK negotiate the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the independent Republic of Ireland? That region in particular has a fraught history with both British politics and border control.
And these are just the large questions. What of all the tiny minutiae, like the question of pet passports and the 759 individual trade agreements within the EU? The scope of the “divorce settlement” is dizzying.
Further complicating all of this is the speculation as to what particular kind of Brexit we may be facing. Could it be a “hard” Brexit or a “soft” one? A “hard” Brexit would mean that the UK would leave the single market, trade with the EU through world trade organization rules, and have more of a say over borders. A “soft” Brexit would leave the UK as part of the single market, allow free access for EU nationals, and ensure that British exports were not subject to border checks.
The cliff edge
Moreover, all of this must be agreed upon within two years. If Britain and the EU don’t reach an agreement, then the UK faces the “cliff edge”. They would basically be out in the wilderness without a deal or safeguards. In this scenario, everything will default to the “harshest possible scenario”, said Oliver. Sure, the UK could ask for an extension on talks. However, all 27 EU members would have to cast a unanimous vote in favor of an extension. Good luck on that.
So, it’s hard to do anything but agree with Oliver when he tells May how badly she’s messed up. In fact, it could be that the most honest and straightforward politician on the British stage is one Lord Buckethead. Said Oliver in response to comments about what “the whole affair” will look llike: “That intergalactic space lord has a point”.
At this point, it’s hard to see how May and the rest of the United Kingdom are going to come out of this with any ease or grace. Perhaps, said Oliver, Prime Minister May could use the element of surprise during the looming talks.
Maybe the UK could send someone who is not a career negotiator, but a bold and unexpected person. In fact, it could be someone with “a bucket list of demands and an honest, slightly muffled voice”.
Enter the actual, for-real Lord Buckethead, who silently stood for applause while Oliver pleaded his case. At this point, with all of the strangeness in the world, why not?