Theresa May, the British prime minister, is on a mission to breach EU unity over Brexit, the departure of Britain from the European Union. Michel Barmier, the EU negotiator for Brexit, has rejected out of hand the cherry-picking proposal of May, known as the Chequers plan. It is highly doubtful that May will succeed in her mission, which means more nasty pains for May and Britain down the road.
After Barnier rejected the Chequers plan, May has tried to use charm offensive and divisive strategy to have a good deal. In a charm offensive, she herself broke her vacation in Italy and visited Emmanuel Macron, the French president. France is one of the hardliners in the Brexit negotiations and potentially the largest beneficiary of Brexit, as Paris might get a substantial chunk of London’s financial industry. Though the details of the conversation are yet to come out, one can conclude that the talks did not go in Britain’s favor.
May sent her ministers to several capitals to drive a wedge in EU unity. To be sure, some EU members are not as committed to the integrity of EU as others. Those that have rightist governments, such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and those that have suffered economic pain being part of the Euro, such as Greece and Italy, would welcome the loosening of EU grip on their countries. However, there are no indications that her ministers had much success to report either.
Ireland and Spain could veto any soft deal unless their concerns are fully addressed, which is bad for Britain. Ireland wants to keep free movement between it and Northern Ireland as promised under the Good Friday Agreement that ended the three-decade-long conflict in Northern Ireland. Britain’s maximum facilitation or maxfac, sacnning technology that would obviate the need for human intervention at the border, is a dream because such technology does not exist. EU is one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.
Spain wants the status of Gibraltar to be decided under the Brexit agreement. All along, Spain has claimed the rocks tucked into the Mediterranean Sea. Because EU takes decisions based on unanimity, each of these EU members has a veto on Brexit deal. Such thorny issues had been brushed under the carpet before the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
Before the referendum, people were promised a huge Brexit dividend. Brexit hawks had promised that Britain will have a cake and eat it too. In other words, they will take back control from Brussels, limit EU migration, have the power to make trade deals independently, not pay the membership fee while continuing to have access to the single market. By a four percent margin, British voters voted for this fantasy.
The edifice of the European Union is built on five pillars — four freedoms: freedom of movement for goods, for services, for capital, and for people and the supranational jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. If any of these five pillars has been weakened, let alone demolished, EU as we know it will not survive. What Britain is asking is just for that.
Donald Trump, the US president, has supported Britain. He believes a weaker Britain will be the taker of US demands and standards in any bilateral trade deal. EU food standards are much stricter than US standards. For instance, EU has banned chlorinated US chicken and genetically modified foods. A weakened Britain would help Trump’s agenda to Make America Great Again at the cost of EU standards.
Reality has been biting Britain now as EU debunked its fantasy land. For two years, May could not rally her feuding ministers behind a common position on what Brexit should look like. Last month, she forced her hard-line ministers to accept a soft Brexit in her Chequers retreat, leading to the resignation of such Brexit hawks like Boris Johnson, then the foreign secretary, and David Davis, then the Brexit secretary, among others.
But Barnier rejected the Chequers plan as well. It was only a little softer cherry-picking than as promised during the referendum. If May has all but the Chequers plan to put on the table, a hard Brexit is sure to follow. So May visited Macron on a charm offensive and sent her ministers to Europe to drive a wedge in EU unity.
Meanwhile, though the impact of the Brexit referendum has not proved at cataclysmic as widely predicted at the time, the fear of a no-deal Brexit has begun to bite Britain. Sterling has already taken a tumble of 20 percent. Investment in the UK is being withheld due to the uncertainty. Growth has slowed down, and companies have started moving some of their operations to the continent and slash their workforce in Britain.
What is more, the May government is preparing for a hard Brexit now. Plans are being chalked up to mobilize the military to ensure an orderly distribution of food and other necessities. Sterling is expected to lose further ground. Growth is expected to slow down further and even enter into the recession territory. Brexit dividend promised during the referendum has vanished from official discourse. Predictions are being made about several miles of trucks waiting for clearance at Dover.
This has frightened a section of the ruling Conservative Party. Some Tory peers in the upper chamber voted against a hard Brexit, defeating the government’s hard Brexit proposals more than a dozen times. Some members of May’s party in lower chamber have threatened to vote against the government if it chooses to go for a hard Brexit.
Propped up by the DUP, the May government has a razor-thin majority. Labor is in favor of a customs union with the EU, which raises the possibility of the government getting defeated if in case the hard Brexit is the only thing on the table. Pro-Remainers from all parties outnumber the Pro-Brexiteers in both houses of parliament. If push comes to shove, May’s government might fall, paving the way for fresh elections and installment of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor leader, in 10 Downing Street.
To soften EU and breach EU unity, London is using its security leverage. But for EU, it is an existential question. If Britain gets what it wants, EU as it exists will unravel quickly. All its members would want its benefits but not its costs, like Britain. If EU keeps its integrity, Britain will have to live with what it doles out, so more Brexit blues are certain to hit May and Britain.