Brexit Zugzwang: How the UK can escape the Fierce Checkmate/Stalemate of Now

Two chess pawns with UK and European flags

The German word Zugzwang describes how a chess player’s obligation to make a move only makes matters worse. As the country lurches towards March 29th – Zugzwang Brexit is where our politicians are now at. So what can be done?

A friend messaged me during one of the critical votes this week and I could practically hear him sobbing as he typed out the words: “when will it end? How will it end?” Obviously I don’t know any more than anyone else, but it didn’t stop me trying to answer: “Best guess – sometime in the late 2020s – and who knows?” I replied.

He still hasn’t got back to me.

The EU referendum has plunged the United Kingdom into a chaos so unprecedented, that only a fool would bet on the final outcome. What is clear is that each move to try to break the political deadlock has merely shoved the nation into further bedlam. With just two weeks to go before the March 29th deadline – the country is like that coach in the final scene of 1969 crime caper The Italian Job. Any move in any direction risks sending the whole thing tumbling down a cliff, while staying put is likewise not an option. In short, all attempts to resolve the crisis simply make matters worse.

Stalemate Mixed with Checkmate

The Germans have a word for this. “Zugzwang” is a term used by chess masters to describe the situation where a participant is compelled to play, even when it is clearly not in their interests to do so. “Zugzwang Brexit” is where we are now at.

Consider May’s potential moves. The EU rightly insists it is up to the UK to find a solution – but with her deal voted down, no viable alternative on the table and the EU leaders unwilling to debate the matter further what alternatives does the PM have?  

It is far from certain that the EU 27 would grant the UK extra time. Even if they did, an extension of Article 50 would merely kick the can further down the road. A second referendum could go either way. If ‘Leave’ were to win again we would be back at square one. If Remain won but not by a considerable margin then the issue would not be satisfactorily resolved. A No Deal Brexit would heap ruin on the country and only serve as an ‘I told you so’ for Remainers as we disappeared down the plughole of global relevance.

If the polls are to be believed a General Election would be unlikely to deliver a result very different to that of 2017 and further uncertainty – possibly lasting years would ensue. Labour’s leadership anyway remain committed to Brexit.

So What Can be Done?

Well there is a way out of ‘Zugzwang Brexit’ – but it is the political equivalent of forfeiting the game.

The UK could revoke Article 50 and simply accept that the country has failed to reach political accord. May has twice failed to get her deal through the House of Commons and it seems likely that any further version, negotiated by any of her successors would meet a similar fate.

By revoking the mechanism by which a member state leaves the EU – dignity and sanity could momentarily be restored and the country could dampen the fuse of the ticking time bomb which Theresa May so recklessly and foolishly lit. That would be in the public’s interest, in the nations’ interest, in the interest of jobs and industry and the UK economy.

As such – it’s unlikely to happen.

Because who cares about what is the best thing to do anymore? Brexit was lost to self-interest and political in-fighting from the start. It has nothing to do with what is best for Britain or for the lives of British people. The game is all about winning and we – the pieces or the board are but disposable pawns. Perhaps it was ever thus.