May to walk Brexit tightrope in speech

Theresa May has so far simply promised that she will somehow produce a British exit that satisfies all

May to walk Brexit tightrope in speech
Prime Minister Theresa May, who has for many weeks evaded debate over how Britain will exit from the European Union (EU) with the phrase “Brexit means Brexit,” promises more clarity in a speech this month. She is expected to speak two months before she intends to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally beginning a two-year negotiation with Brussels on leaving the EU, and just after the Supreme Court rules on whether Parliament must approve that invocation.

The Supreme Court, the United Kingdom’s highest court of appeal in civil cases, is expected to rule against the government and require that Parliament have a say. A short bill has been prepared, however, and no one expects lawmakers of either house to oppose the result of the June Brexit referendum at this stage. So May will speak. But what will she say, especially when she insists that she does not want to give away her bargaining position with Brussels too early? And how will she calm down the fervid, angry and partisan atmosphere around the whole topic – both in the country at large and, more important, in her own Conservative government?

The most recent indication of Brexit madness surrounded the sudden resignation of Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, who charged in an email to his staff that the government had “muddled thinking” about Brexit and had not understood what the 27 other nations in the bloc would accept in an exit negotiation. Rogers, who had been intimately involved in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s vain effort to secure a winning new arrangement for Britain from Brussels, was being challenged or ignored by those in the government who, unlike May herself, favoured Brexit from the start.

Nor did he get on with her two closest political advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. They reportedly resented Rogers’ views, which somehow made it into the press, that the government was unprepared for the negotiations, overly optimistic about getting a special deal and utopian about how long it would take to negotiate a separate trade agreement with the EU. The press wrote happily about a revolt of the “mandarins” — the permanent civil service — over May’s leadership, with those opposed to Brexit judging the loss of Rogers and his expertise a body blow to the country’s future. Brexiters largely considered his decision to quit both welcome and inevitable.

Brexit advocates, like Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood, dismissed Rogers’ email as pompous and whiny and pressed for a known Brexiter to replace him in Brussels. David Davis, the Brexiter who heads the new Cabinet office called the Department for Exiting the EU (Dexeu), allowed his top civil servant, Olly Robbins, to try to downgrade the ambassador’s job so the entire Brussels Embassy would report to him, and not to the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office successfully fended off Davis and demanded to keep the Brussels job. That went to Tim Barrow, a former ambassador to Moscow and the current political director of the Foreign Office. Barrow, a security expert, is considered a sensible, intelligent and safe pair of hands.

Herself a quiet opponent of Brexit, May promised to carry out the wishes of the British people as expressed in the June referendum that caused Cameron to resign only a year after he won a surprising majority for the Conservatives. But it was the long-standing anti-European minority in the party, enhanced by defections to the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party, that forced the referendum on a country with other priorities, like jobs, crime, security and the failings of the National Health Service.

While for most Brexit Conservatives, the main issue was British sovereignty and freedom from EU rules, regulations, court decisions and fees, the main concern of the 52% of Britons who favoured Brexit was immigration, Arron Banks, the prime funder of UKIP and one of the Brexit campaigns, said in an interview. He paid for a private poll of 50,000 voters himself. Behind concerns about security, jobs and the health service, Banks said, was a widely felt judgment that immigration numbers were too large and out of control, and that such control could only be restored by leaving the EU. Therein lies May’s dilemma. Diplomats and officials who have had some discussions with her advisers and would not be named because of the confidential nature of those talks say she has two priorities that will limit her negotiating options.

First, vital to Conservatives who consider sovereignty as most important, is getting Britain out from under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Second, control over immigration is important to most Brexit voters. The logic of these two priorities would mean that Britain could no longer be a part of the EU’s single market for trade in goods and services and freedom of travel and labour. Nor could it be a part of the customs union for goods alone, because that also would mean both paying Brussels and having no ability to strike separate trade deals with China, say, or Washington.

Transitional trade agreement
So the only logical future relationship would seem to be a new trade deal in goods and services that Britain would have to negotiate with the rest of the EU — a negotiation Rogers suggested, to May’s unhappiness, could take a decade. In the meantime, he had suggested, Britain should negotiate a transitional agreement that would preserve free trade and would probably look a lot like Britain’s current membership — with the obligations, but without the right to participate in decision-making.

Without such a transition, Britain risks a hard Brexit, with considerable damage to its trade and especially to its dominant financial services sector. But those conclusions are politically unpopular as well, especially with Brexiters like Davis who believe the EU needs Britain more than Britain needs the EU, and like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who likes to say Britain can have its cake and eat it, too, and that Britain can both control immigration and still remain in the single market.

The loss of access to the single market could also have serious implications for Britain’s integrity, since Scotland’s nationalist leaders threaten a new independence referendum if it can no longer trade freely with the EU. But logic and politics do not always fit together nicely. So May holds her fire, remains silent about her priorities and their costs and simply promises that she will somehow produce a British exit that satisfies everyone.

In the meantime, having chided US Secretary of State John Kerry for his speech criticising the Israeli government and settlement expansion in what appeared to be an effort to align Britain with President-elect Donald Trump, Downing Street is suggesting that it has finally secured a White House meeting for May with Trump sometime in February. Trump confirmed the meeting in a Twitter post Saturday, saying: “I look very much forward to meeting Prime Minister Theresa May in Washington in the Spring. Britain, a longtime US ally, is very special!” Indeed, a Britain out of the EU is going to need the special relationship with the United States more than ever.

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