Her buoyancy didn’t last long. First her Cabinet minister David Davis, who holds the Brexit brief, undermined her and the agreement by claiming that it was “more a statement of intent than a legally enforceable thing.” This, needless to say, enraged European negotiators. That was followed on Wednesday by a humiliating defeat for May’s government in a House of Commons vote that granted Parliament the legal guarantee of a vote on whatever final Brexit deal is eventually reached with the EU. A week after Mrs.May believed she had cleared some difficult hurdles, including the so called divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the fate of the Irish border, she headed back to Brussels last week bruised and weakened.
It is ironic that the defeat in Parliament was facilitated by a mini-rebellion of 11 MPs of her own Conservative Party. After all, the Brexit debacle was first and foremost the result of an attempt to resolve, once and for all, the historic rifts within the Conservative Party over Europe. An ill-fated referendum, followed by the equally ill-fated decision by May to go for early elections, backfired badly, leaving her with no parliamentary majority and at the mercy of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to stay in power.
The Tory MPs who were brave enough to resist the bullying tactics of the party whips, who tried to force them to vote against the amendment that gives Parliament the last say on Brexit, have made it quite clear that, a referendum and a general election later, disunity over Europe still bedevils the Conservative Party and dominates Tory in-fighting; the rifts are as deep as ever. Adding to the British prime minister’s headache is the government’s reliance for its survival on a DUP that vehemently opposes any hint that Northern Ireland might be treated differently from the rest of the UK.
Every step of the Brexit journey leaves a trail of evidence that there is a striking difference between what is in the interest of the country, and what the British political system is able to support. It was obvious from the outset that the EU and the UK had diametrically opposite approaches, not only to the nature of the final agreement, but also to the process by which to achieve it, and to the sequence of issues discussed. For Britain, reaching agreement on trade relations and control of its borders was a priority, but it faced an adamant and rather uncommonly united front in Europe that was keen to first resolve the future of its citizens who live in the UK and vice versa, the divorce bill that the UK will pay into the European coffers, and the future of the only physical border shared by the two — that between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
The British negotiators learnt rather rapidly that discussing what is vital for the future of the country’s economy first requires resolving the three issues of primary concern to the other 27 members and their citizens. The agreement eventually reached represents neither a “soft” nor “hard” Brexit, but a pragmatic one. If in the early stages of the negotiations some sources in the EU were mentioning a divorce bill as high as €100 billion, the new agreement suggests around half that figure. Britain’s unreasonably harsh position regarding EU citizens living in the UK has softened in the Joint Report of the UK government and the European Commission that constitutes the first negotiations phase. May went as far as publishing an open letter to the three million European residents in the UK, pledging to protect their rights and enshrine them in UK law. The border between the two parts of Ireland is a symbolic as well as a practical matter. The formula to keep it “invisible,” without compromising the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, should satisfy everyone, at least for now.
European leaders are beginning to wonder if lame duck Prime Minister Theresa May will be able to hobble over the finishing line.
May made enough concessions to allow the European Parliament to vote by a massive majority to open discussions on the transition period, which will be essential for Britain in order to establish — at least in the short and medium term — its working relations with the EU, especially on trade. A timely agreement on their economic relations is essential to prevent a mass exodus of business and investment from Britain to the rest of the continent. There are a number of models of EU trade agreements with non-EU members, such as those it has with Norway and with Canada. David Davis indicated that he wants to reach a free-trade deal with no tariffs by the time Brexit becomes a reality in March 2019. He described such a deal as “Canada plus plus plus.” This might be a pipedream in which the UK retains a major benefit of EU membership without the readiness to accept that open borders for trade and capital also have a third essential element that is at the heart of the European vision — the free movement of people.
May’s new-found flexibility, as demonstrated in the Joint Report, gained her desperately needed credibility in Brussels. However, her European interlocutors are not oblivious to the fact that they are negotiating with a politician who is increasingly becoming a lame duck at home, and this leaves them wondering whether she will be able to hobble all the way to the Brexit finishing line.
• 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