View from Germany

Brits are in denial about their diminishing importance

Britain’s Prime minister Theresa May attends the One Planet Summit at the Seine Musicale center in Boulogne-Billancourt
The glass is, almost certainly, half empty. Source: Reuters

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, visited all four parts of the UK last week – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Her goal was to drum up some excitement about Brexit just one year before March 29, 2019, when the country is due to leave the European Union. The UK could look forward to a “brilliant future,” she enthused. It was a “strong and united country” about to “regain control of our laws, our borders and our money.”

On the other side of the English Channel, Ms. May’s upbeat message met with near-total incomprehension. British nationalists have failed to win over European public opinion. Contrary to fears, no other EU country has shown any sign of following the British lead. Even the right-wing nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary remain firmly committed to the EU.

Britain’s impending exit has shifted the balance of power between the UK and the EU, but not at all to London’s advantage.

With Brexit, Britain's imperial aura has finally worn off.

When the Brexit negotiations began in March 2017, some in the EU feared they could be bamboozled by savvy British diplomats, well-schooled in the country’s imperial tradition. A year later, things look very different. Britain’s diplomats are still brilliant, but they have little say in their own country, making little headway against demagogues and populist deniers of reality like Boris Johnson or David Davis.

Long after the loss of its colonies, Britain continued to benefit from the Empire’s fading aura. But with Brexit, that magic has finally worn off. Left to its own devices, Britain is just a medium-sized state with limited global influence, its Empire long gone. The Commonwealth does not have a seat at the table with the world’s great powers.

So now the prime minister travels the country, trying to hold together the tiny remains of the empire on which the sun never set. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted against Brexit, and there is a still a risk that Scotland may carry out its threat to leave the UK.

Within Europe, Britain has marginalized itself. Its hopes of fomenting division among the EU’s other 27 member states have proved illusory. Ms. May has had to endure much humiliation, including from Angela Merkel. Last year, the German chancellor made it known that EU heads of government had better things to do than discuss Brexit. In future, could the British prime minister deal directly with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, please?

Mr. Barnier leads a rock-solid EU negotiating front, against which Britain has butted heads for a year without making progress. At first, Ms. May still believed she could threaten to boycott the EU, summed up in her now-famous slogan: “No deal is better than a bad deal for Britain.“

In reality, things are exactly the other way round. A chaotic, no-deal Brexit would undoubtedly damage the EU. But it would be a disaster for the British economy. Ms. May must avoid this at all costs.

The Brexit negotiations are a losing issue for Ms. May.

This is why Britain accepted the EU’s “divorce bill,” agreeing to make a final payment of around €60 billion ($74 billion) to settle its budgetary obligations, even though Ms. May had originally wanted to pay nothing. She has also guaranteed continuing residency rights for all EU citizens currently living in the UK. And she has accepted that the UK will continue to apply all EU law until the end of 2020, including judgements of the European Court of Justice, much hated by Brexit nationalists.

In Northern Ireland, European laws could remain in force even longer. The EU wants this to be the legally-binding fallback position if by the end of 2020 there is no solution to the problem of the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland, soon to be its border with the EU.

The Brexit negotiations are a losing issue for Ms. May. The talk now is of a future partnership with the EU, involving the loss of privileges that Britain has grown used to as an EU member. From the end of 2020 on, the country will lose access to the European single market. The British government seems in no hurry to inform its people about the inevitable negative consequences. At some point, Ms. May will have to tell the truth.

For the prime minister, already gravely weakened, this will mean serious political risk. But the risks run wider than just British politics: The EU also needs stable leadership in London. A political crisis and new elections would explode the tight schedule of the Brexit negotiation process.

The danger of the UK leaving the EU with no Brexit deal has lessened. But it has not entirely gone away.

To contact the author: berschens@handelsblatt.com

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