Last month, I wrote about my European trip and noted Catalonia’s referendum on the region’s independence from Spain.

Referring to the “yea” outcome from a minority of voters, I said: “As the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit chaos and confusion show, it’s much easier to rouse voters’ emotions with unrealistic promises than it is to deliver.”

We’ve had our own share of unrealistic promises by politicians in this country. I’d put “repeal and replace Obamacare” in that category. Why? Because despite using this slogan for seven years, proponents did nothing to develop a credible alternative.

This lack of planning helps explain the failure of hastily crafted health care legislation in the House and Senate earlier this year. Such a complex issue is nearly impossible to address on a rapid timetable.

So let’s take a look at Brexit — British exit from the European Union — to see what’s happening to one of our closest allies across the Atlantic. Are Brexiters’ promises being fulfilled?

In short, no. And prospects don’t look good. A big problem is the UK wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

Take trade and immigration. Voters were told Brexit would allow the UK to control its borders and reduce the flow of legal immigrants from other EU countries and also refugees from the Mideast and Africa (of which the UK has taken relatively few). At the same time, pro-Brexit politicians said the UK could negotiate continued unrestricted access for its exports to the EU.


One pillar of today’s European Union is the “four freedoms”: freedom of movement of goods, services, money and people across members’ borders.

In other words, no free movement of people, no free movement of goods and services.

Roughly 45 percent of UK exports go to the other 27 EU countries. And as Europe’s major financial center, London benefits greatly from the free movement of skilled workers and capital. British exporters and UK-based financial firms will suffer greatly from loss of easy access to the wider EU market.

Another promise was that the UK could dedicate its large payments to the EU to domestic health care and hospitals instead. Wrong again.

Not only does the UK get about half its payments back in the form of subsidies to farmers, R&D and other purposes, but a major sticking point in ongoing negotiations is the EU’s demand that the UK live up to spending commitments already made for budgetary items with a long life, such as pensions and infrastructure investment.

Little or no funding will be freed up for health care or other purposes.

Another promise by Brexiters was that the UK would flourish economically and politically outside the strictures of the EU. Free of EU regulations and red tape, they argued, the UK economy would enjoy renewed growth and vigor. Similarly, they painted a picture of a British renaissance in foreign affairs, with the island nation once again playing a leading role in international circles.

The reality is that domestic and foreign investment in the UK has slowed since the Brexit vote, the pound has lost value, and the economy is softening. Many foreign firms are actively considering large staff moves to other EU countries. A big reason is tremendous uncertainty surrounding the future and the potential loss of easy access to EU markets.

Both of the UK’s major political parties are weak and in disarray, and little progress has been made in talks with the EU. Leaders in other EU countries feel no obligation to make the UK’s path to separation easy or painless. Quite the contrary. They want to stem other potential schisms in EU unity.

The UK’s internal political chaos also gives lie to its global leadership ambitions. Prime Minister Theresa May’s risky decision to call a snap election earlier this year resulted in her Tory party losing its parliamentary majority. Infighting among key cabinet members reveals a party at war with itself.

A country with such fractured political leadership at home is hardly in a position to win the respect and deference of other countries.

Time is running short. A host of complex issues must be resolved within the next year to meet the EU’s two-year deadline for negotiated withdrawal.

The bottom line is it’s far easier to criticize an existing institution or program than it is to develop a workable alternative.

Sadly, that’s a lesson that politicians and voters in this and other countries sometimes forget or ignore. Even sadder, real people too often pay the price.

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Joanna Shelton was Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris; held senior positions in the executive branch and Congress in Washington, D.C.; and teaches periodically at the University of Montana. You can reach her through her website, joannashelton.com.

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