As we all know, back in 2002 the United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said this:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
He was widely mocked for this, but I think that’s unfair. Fundamentally it’s a good way to think of problems facing you. And I think it’s a useful way to think about Brexit.
Brexit is immensely stressful for people caught up in it (for instance, EU citizens in the UK married to British citizens). It’s a lot more stressful than somebody executing a known evil plan, in which case you’d have a choice between putting up or shutting up.
If Brexit was a known known, we’d known what’d happen. That could for instance be the case if Ireland decides to leave the EU in ten years’ time – they could have an expectation to get more or less the same deal as the UK. The Irish will thus be able to think about leaving the UK knowing exactly what kind of deal to expect. (And this is, of course, why the EU cannot afford to give the UK a good deal.)
If Brexit was a known unknown, we’d wouldn’t know the details, but we’d have a fair idea about the deal it’d end up with. That would for instance be the case if the UK government was going a soft Brexit, i.e., a solution that involved remaining within the Internal Market and the Customs Unions. Lots of things would be known, but we wouldn’t know the exact details, such as how much the EU would charge the UK for the privilege.
However, Brexit is an unknown unknown. We don’t know what the UK government wants, we don’t know what the Westminster Parliament will accept, and we’re not certain what the EU will put up with in the end. It sounds like the UK government wants Canada plus services, but that wouldn’t be possible without breaking their promises either to the EU (incl. the Republic of Ireland) or to the DUP, and the Internal Market + Customs Unions deal that would work in Ireland is unlikely to be acceptable to the Conservative Party. So we don’t know the type of deal it’ll end up with, and therefore we have absolutely no idea about the details. Everything is still possible, including remaining within the EU and leaving without a deal. In other words, we can’t even ask questions about the cost for participating in various programmes, because we don’t know which ones the UK will end up taking part in. We don’t even know whether Nicola Sturgeon will call a second independence referendum or not!
It’s immensely frustrating. I’m recovering from a bad ear-and-chest infection, and when I was feeling really rough two weeks ago, I just wanted to run away from this unknown-unknown country to a known-unknown place, where you can look up what you need to find out. I’m sick and tired of guessing the questions as well as the answers.