At this moment of frustration for May, it is clear that she is increasingly realizing one of the great ironies of the UK’s vote to leave the EU last year: The monumental effort and time her government now needs to devote to the Brussels-based club for the foreseeable future, as it seeks to negotiate exit terms, is more than perhaps all previous post-war UK administrations did before the Brexit vote.
Thus the referendum, which saw around 52 percent of the population apparently voting to cut ties with the EU, is now seeing the May team devote huge attention to Europe, with a key strategic priority being developing the new relationship with the 27 other member states. Such is the scale of the task underway that it may be the most complex and important peacetime negotiations the UK has ever faced.
Part of the reason why the challenge is so big is that, as a recent analysis from LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics reveals, the Brexit vote triggered not one but 14 overlapping negotiations to contend with. Collectively, they comprise discussions centered within the UK, between the UK and the EU, within the EU, and beyond Europe, and are potentially very protracted.
Almost a year and a half into May’s premiership, even after her big speech in Florence last month, the country remains little wiser about the likely pathway toward the EU exit door. This includes key details of what the alternative model is she wishes the UK to adopt with the EU.
To much of the rest of Europe, Brexit Britain has thus sometimes felt like one long comedy fast turning into farce, if not tragedy. To be fair to May, the scale of the challenge she faces is not all of her own making, given that she inherited no formal EU exit planning because her predecessor David Cameron refused to contemplate losing last year’s referendum.
But her own government’s grasp of the realities of Brexit has been shaky from the start. Now that Article 50 has been triggered and negotiations have formally begun, perhaps the key area of contention is what, if any, tradeoffs can be agreed over the political need for May to be seen to secure curbs on free movement of people in potential exchange for diminished access to the European Single Market, on which a significant array of British jobs and investment depend. Here, she is running head-on with those in the EU who are demanding that the four freedoms, including of people, must remain sacrosanct.
Theresa May is increasingly realizing that the monumental time and effort her government now needs to devote to the Brussels-based club is more than perhaps all previous post-war UK administrations did before the exit vote.
As May is fast discovering, the complexity of the negotiations that she must undertake now, with no House of Commons majority, means the government will find it hard to negotiate an alternative model that can secure consent from Brussels and the EU member states, which comes close to providing the same balance of influence and advantages that the UK gets from its current full-member status.
For all the EU’s flaws, and it has many that need to be better tackled, the UK has enjoyed a uniquely positive position in what is the world’s largest political and economic union. For instance, it has all the benefits of the single market but is not part of the euro zone, and it has retained a big budgetary rebate.
The stark reality is that while the nature of existing agreements with the EU vary from Norway to Switzerland and Canada to Turkey, all have key disadvantages, including the fact that none of them provide full access to services, which account for around 80 percent of the UK economy. Moreover, Brexiteers continue to generally shy away from the implications of what access to (let alone membership of) the single market may entail without EU membership.
Take the example of Norway, which has considerable access to the single market, except in areas such as agriculture and fisheries. In exchange, it is required to adhere to EU rules without having a vote on them, as members do. It accepts free movement of people, makes contributions to EU programs and budgets, and still is required to do customs checks on goods crossing into the bloc.
Moreover, preferential access to 53 markets outside Europe with which the EU has free-trade agreements will come to an end with Brexit, or need to be renegotiated bilaterally in the coming years. And outside of the economic realm, May knows — as a former home secretary — that forthcoming discussions offer no guarantees that the UK could fully replicate existing cooperation in areas like policing and security, which she has previously cited as important.
Taken overall, the realization is spreading within the UK government that more of its resources and attention need to be directed toward the EU in the coming years than its post-war predecessors. This irony is compounded by the fact that despite all of this effort, May will struggle to strike a deal that is better for the UK national interest than the one that continued membership of a reformed EU potentially offers.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics