Brexit has been getting harder for Britain’s prime minister, in more senses than one.
Theresa May’s announcement that the formal process for the UK’s EU divorce would be launched early next year was welcomed for reducing uncertainty. But not only has the question of parliamentary oversight been raised by MPs and challenged in court, concern over the type of Brexit now being proposed has seen the pound slide further, amid more warnings about jobs and the economy.
On the continent, positions among EU leaders have been hardening too. On Thursday night the EU Council President Donald Tusk became the latest to warn the UK it could not expect a favourable deal outside the bloc.
At the root of this is a significant clarification of the government’s stance. Soon after becoming leader, Theresa May spoke in parliament of balancing immigration controls with trade objectives. By the time she delivered her closing speech to the recent Conservative Party conference, the prime minister’s priorities had swung firmly towards the former.
“Let’s state one thing loud and clear,” May said. “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s not going to happen.”
A Brexit Change is Gonna Come
May’s forceful message on the need for change delighted Brexiteers, but alarmed many outside the conference hall. Pro-Europeans and business leaders saw the new direction as incompatible with securing a good trade deal with the EU, which insists on the free movement of people. One French commentator thought he was listening to his own country’s hard left or Marine Le Pen as various speeches attacked the “liberal elite” and market dominance, mocked the EU Commission president, and called for company lists of foreign employees (an idea since ditched, but not without leaving its mark).
Yet the British government has not turned its back on the Single Market. Theresa May repeated this week that she wants to secure “maximum possible access”. The Chancellor (finance minister) Philip Hammond says Brexit must not damage the economy, and people have not voted to become poorer.
As for the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, he apparently told the Sun that UK government policy was to have its cake and eat it.
So what can be gleaned of Britain’s likely negotiating stance with the EU? The government insists it will not reveal its hand in advance, or give a running commentary on events. Yet some indications of official thinking have been reported, along with plenty of influential advice.
No Brexit Mountain High Enough
A key aide to Brexit Minister David Davis gave more details of the government’s “red lines” for negotiations, Bloomberg reported. Stewart Jackson told a Conservative conference fringe meeting that these included ruling out payments to the EU budget.
The Conservative former Foreign Secretary William Hague proposes work permits for EU nationals who would be allowed into Britain if they have found jobs. Tariffs and other barriers would be near-zero, product standards and regulations broadly similar. “Pragmatic EU governments would find this a reasonable approach,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
One group of Conservative pro-Leave MPs including former ministers wrote a series of essays calling for a quick, clean break from the EU. Arguing that Article 50 “could tie us up in knots”, Bernard Jenkin said in the Observer that Britain “must be prepared to leave without any formal agreement if necessary, or the commission has us over a barrel”. He proposes unilaterally offering zero tariffs for EU imports and an open market for EU services as now. “What would the EU do? Would they really want to slap on their own tariffs and protectionism anyway?” he asks.
Is a Hard Brexit a-Gonna Fall?
Refusing “pre-negotiations” with the UK, the EU’s remaining 27 countries have also shown remarkable unity so far on the European project’s main principles. The French President François Hollande recently called for firmness in dealing with Britain. Angela Merkel had a similar message, warning that giving in to Britain would lead to “everyone in Europe doing what they want”.
There were some conciliatory noises on free trade when Theresa May visited Denmark and the Netherlands this week, but little more at this stage from these traditional allies. Other EU leaders have been vociferous in their opposition to compromise on free movement; last month Bloomberg gave a summary of views from all 27 EU states, concluding that a “hard Brexit looms”.
The icing on Boris Johnson’s cake came on Thursday from Donald Tusk: but its taste was distinctly sour rather than sweet. “There will be no cakes on the table,” he said. “For anyone. There will only be salt and vinegar.”
Brexit’s Long and Winding Road
After visiting several EU capitals, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform was struck by the united approach of the 27 nations against granting the UK concessions. He also identified fear of populism as the biggest factor.
Several countries – notably Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany – face tricky elections in the next year. Governments want to avoid encouraging Eurosceptic parties by accommodating Britain. Others have argued there are strong economic reasons for EU governments not to flinch. It’s worth noting that Switzerland – not part of the bloc – has had to abandon proposed quotas for foreign residents in order to maintain access to the EU’s Single Market, even though voters had narrowly backed such restrictions in a referendum.
Might the EU’s hardline stance ease later, if the populists are kept at bay in the polls? Once Britain starts putting forward apparently pragmatic proposals, might opinion shift if the EU continues huffily saying “non”? Especially if it becomes increasingly clear it too will be hit economically by a looming hard Brexit? One study argues that the EU has more to lose from trade barriers than the UK – although this has been disputed.
Trade is not the only issue: it’s argued that Brexit will require at least six separate deals, with many hurdles along the way. With no agreement or interim deal, the UK would be reliant on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, with tariff barriers.
In Britain there are warnings that the public may have to face a reality check. A summer advisory paper by Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie includes warnings about “complex trade-offs” and making the public understand that “any international agreement entails limits on a state’s ability to act just as it pleases”.
Charles Grant’s advice to the British government includes avoiding antagonistic rhetoric and remaining polite once Brexit negotiations get underway. Should Boris Johnson be involved, he might be advised to bring along some cake.