Brutal Brexit

Germany looks on with horror as Britain's deadline looms

People walk through Canary Wharf while the sky overhead turns red as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London
Many in Europe take a dim view of London's prospects post-Brexit. Source: Reuters

British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle for the New Year. On the face of it, this is a radical step, with several ministers relieved of their duties.

But cabinet changes are no indication that Ms. May is taking decisive command of her government. On the contrary, the figures who have been making life hard for the prime minister in recent months are all still in place: These include foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who has questioned her authority on several occasions, and Brexit minister David Davis, whose undiplomatic talk torpedoed negotiations with Brussels last month. So yet again, Theresa May has not dared to crack the whip.

Several times last year she backed away from uncomfortable decisions, but it’s unlikely she can keep up this strategy in the coming months. Although the deadline for the UK to leave the European Union is not until March 2019, all major decisions must be agreed upon by this fall, affecting issues which could shape the country for generations. The clock is ticking. But so far, negotiations with Brussels have produced no actual decisions. Hard haggling over the details of Brexit, and its profound implications, has barely begun.

2018 promises to be the year when the battle over Brexit will hit Britain with full fury. One by one, it seems, the dreams of those who thought leaving the EU would restore Britain to its former greatness will be shattered.

2018 promises to be the year when the battle over Brexit will hit Britain with full fury.

Brussels and London will soon begin negotiations on the post-Brexit transition phase. The EU believes Britain must continue to recognize the authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during this period. For Brexit hardliners who feel disempowered by the EU and above all by the ECJ, this demand is simply unacceptable. But at this point the British government seems ready to agree to the idea.

Open warfare on the question seems likely between Brexit supporters and opponents, both in government and in parliament. The upcoming parliamentary session on the so-called Withdrawal Bill –the legal instrument required to leave the EU – promises to see heated debate. Both on the Bill and on transition, Brexit supporters seem headed for disappointment. A majority of MPs are critical of EU withdrawal, and already forced concessions from the government in the first parliamentary debates on Brexit at the end of last year.

More difficulties are certain to emerge from negotiations on the post-transition relationship between the UK and the EU. So far, the British government has not specifically outlined its vision for the time after Brexit. And with good reason: it doesn’t have one. The Cabinet will discuss the issue for the first time in the coming weeks. The ideas floated so far have all been unrealistic, for example, the deal dubbed “Canada plus plus plus,” based on the EU’s free-trade agreement with Canada. In fact, there is no reason why the EU would offer Britain more far-reaching concessions than it granted the Canadians.

Moreover, the British negotiating strategy of playing off individual EU members against each other will not succeed. Although the various EU countries have different interests, they all have more to gain from the EU than from good relations with Britain.

There is no way back. For this reason, 2018 will not be a good year for Britain.

The hope that Britain, “freed from the EU chains,” as Brexiteers put it, will secure lucrative trade pacts with the great nations of the world, will remain a pipe dream. Even the United States, with whom Britain enjoys the much-vaunted “special relationship,” has so far shown little desire to leap to Britain’s aid. In fact, a state visit by Donald Trump, planned for this year, only promises to create more trouble: It has been rejected by large swathes of the British public.

The British government’s horrifying to-do list for 2018 includes: conduct difficult negotiations, both in Britain and in Brussels, on transition and on future relations with the EU, continue to search for post-Brexit partners outside the EU, and manage relations with the United States.

No wonder that increasing numbers of British people are convinced that withdrawing from the EU is the “most gratuitous and consequential act of national self-harm in Britain’s postwar history,” as the historian Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote. Even Tony Blair, the former prime minister, has been working to reverse the Brexit decision. But there is no widespread support for this among the British public. Too many Britons still go by the old tradition of the stiff upper lip – stoically keeping on, whether or not the course is the correct one. So there is no way back. And for this reason, 2018 will not be a good year for Britain.

To contact the author: leitel@handelsblatt.com

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