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A weak May negotiates a hard(ish) Brexit

It was only a few weeks ago that a complacent, on the verge of arrogant, British Prime Minister Theresa May believed that when the Brexit negotiations began, it would be on the backdrop of a famous electoral success. Instead disastrous election results left her entering the negotiations as leader of a minority government, which is weak at home and a laughing stock among its EU interlocutors.

The EU negotiators could hardly hide their satisfaction, bordering on schadenfreude, over the British election results, as this places them in a commanding position. They are aware that the self-proclaimed “strong and stable” May might not even politically survive the duration of these negotiations. One of the most obvious readings of the June 8 elections is that unlike a year ago when younger people proved reluctant to vote, handing victory to those who wanted out of the EU, this time they were out in force. This handed the opposition Labour Party a much better result than was expected, and was a protest of Brexit and continuous austerity.

Those who voted Labour might have the reversal of Brexit in mind, but regrettably both leaders of the largest parties in the UK — May and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party — are hard-Brexiters at heart, though for different reasons. One despises the EU for being a neo-liberal mechanism that compromises the character of the British Isles, leading to a monolithic European view and insisting on free immigration; the other loathes it as what he perceives to be a tool in the hands of the big businesses. Their half-hearted Remain campaign last year deceived almost no one. Theresa May revealed her true colors, with her strong hard-Brexit inclination, from day one of her premiership, while Corbyn has been hiding, and quite well, behind his pro-European MPs.

Following the election there are more voices within the British political system, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, calling for a rethink of Brexit altogether and even a new referendum.

These are still minority voices, which could increase if negotiations are stalled without prospects of progress. In the weeks leading up to the elections one of May’s soundbites was that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” As far as exercises in stating the obvious go it almost sounds logical. Nevertheless, even the most novice of negotiators would realize from the outset that entering negotiations with this state of mind, considering the issues at stake, is irresponsibly dangerous.

The EU side has the privilege of approaching talks with relative unity and strength, especially in comparison with the currently fragmented British position.

Yossi Mekelberg

The very first round of talks have already exposed the folly of contemplating “no deal” as a viable option. Take for instance the predicament of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons living in EU countries. There are 3 million of the former and 1.2 million of the latter. No deal would entail years of uncertainty for them and their families regarding their legal status. This potentially impacts their access to public services including health and education. May’s opening gambit on this issue suggested a “fair and serious” solution to their residency predicament. The strong and stable turned into the fair and serious. However, as always May is short on detail, using soundbites at the expense of a detailed policy. Any proposal should specify who is included, who is the legal arbiter in case of disputes, and deadlines for claiming residency. Trying to appeal to all constituencies without direction or leadership can only lead to a rough ride ahead. 

The messages from the British government are contradictory, as other Cabinet ministers smell May’s weakness and the opportunity to assert their political credentials. Philip Hammond, the chief financial minister, led the chorus calling for negotiations to prioritize the economy and jobs. This was a message to the prime minister, from the person holding the most powerful portfolio in government, that there is a strong constituency within her party for a soft Brexit, including staying in the EU single market. This is a view that cannot and should not be ignored. 

The EU negotiators have the privilege of approaching the Brexit negotiations from a position of relative unity and strength, especially in comparison with the currently fragmented British position, which is characterized by a lack of coherence in its approach to the negotiations and its objectives. Those cracks left enough room even for a seasoned politician such as the European Council President Donald Tusk to “dream” at the start of negotiations that Brexit would be reversed and that the UK would stay in the European fold. One wonders how many British politicians share this dream, but cannot afford to express it in public. At this point this is still a pipe dream, but in the fast-changing realities of UK and EU politics, it would not be wise to exclude this option.

Four centuries ago the Welsh poet and orator George Herbert asserted, “A fool may throw a stone into a well, which a hundred wise men cannot pull out.” David Cameron, who gambled his country’s fortunes on a referendum, threw the stone. Now it is left to many others to figure out how to negotiate a smart Brexit for the sake of both the UK and the EU — or, even better, just abort Brexit altogether.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.