One might feel slight sympathy for Prime Minister Theresa May and her government considering that the decision to call a referendum was made under another prime minister who neglected his duty, not to mention basic common sense, to prepare for such an eventuality. It is also true that Brexit has no precedent; nothing has ever come close. For more than 60 years the EU has experienced only growth and expansion. The discourse has always been one of the further accession of new members. Contemplating a member state leaving has always been either a taboo subject or an extreme improbability not worth wasting time on.
The carelessness of the British government beggars belief. What was supposed to be a magic formula to heal the deep rifts within the Conservative party has only split the party and society even further. An appalling political misjudgment by May – her decision to call a general election – left her bruised and weakened, with her judgment and leadership in question. As a consequence she is forced to play the Brexit game with a poor hand, while the political vultures circle above 10 Downing Street and vie for her job. Neither has Britain’s position been helped by May’s hasty decision to trigger Article 50 without at least agreeing in principle some of the parameters of the negotiations and endgame with her ministers and the EU.
The European negotiators, led by Michel Barnier, are in the driving seat and they know it. As the 2019 Brexit deadline draws closer, the more desperate will Britain become to reach a deal that guarantees the economic benefits associated with EU membership. May’s catchy mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal” might be a truism, but no deal is the worst of bad deals. This week Barnier sent a clear warning to the UK that the best it could expect from the negotiations is a trade deal no better than the one the EU concluded with Canada. Moreover, negotiating such an agreement might take several years, dashing May’s hope that a deal can be struck before the March 2019 leaving deadline. These two opposing views can hardly be reconciled beyond the obvious extent that they are negotiating smokescreens. Thus far the EU position remains robust and united in not making it easy for the UK to leave, and not being constrained by a two-year framework. The British government in contrast is deeply divided between those who take the pragmatic approach that maintaining special relations with Europe will require concessions, and those who push for a hard Brexit whatever the consequences. For the EU, the issues of people’s freedom of movement, regulations, keeping open the border that divides Ireland and ensuring the status of EU citizens in the UK represent both core values and vital interests. Their room for compromise is therefore limited. Making extensive concessions in the Brexit negotiations risks angering some member states and, even worse, undermining the entire European odyssey. It is even more difficult to stay focused and constructive when negotiating with a British government paralyzed by rifts.
Conducting the negotiations in public and in the glare of the media is adding to the complications, especially when the British prime minister seeing out a full term in office, or even the period of the negotiations, is in doubt. The confusion at the heart of government about its Brexit goal, its Brexit strategy, and the tactical maneuvers it might accordingly employ, has opened it up to even more public scrutiny, which the government is now trying to prevent by depriving Parliament of the right to have the last say on the outcome of the negotiations.
Exposed by the Brexit debacle, the British ship of state appears to be adrift with no one at the helm.
Michael Bloomberg, who was in London last week inaugurating his lavish new multimillion-pound offices, chastised Brexit as the “single stupidest thing any country has ever done” apart from the election of Donald Trump as US president. Worse, he indicated that had he foreseen Brexit he would not have embroiled himself in this massive investment. From such a prominent businessman and former politician, this was a stark warning that prolonged negotiations, especially with the background noise of constant political wrangling, will scare away future investment in the British economy. What’s left for Britain is either to rethink Brexit altogether, which at the moment is unlikely, or to get realistic about the likely outcome of the negotiations, which will be a matter of minimizing the damage of a referendum that should never have been held in the first place. This requires a brave leadership capable of reaching a deal that is as close to membership as possible, but wearing the cloak of hard Brexit.
• 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. Twitter: @YMekelberg