Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May delivered her much-anticipated speech on Brexit this week, and it was suffused with delusions of grandeur. When are British leaders going to realize that their days of imperial greatness are long gone? Listening to May, however, one would think that the world’s map was still splattered in red, white and blue colors of the Union Jack – otherwise known by former colonial subjects as the Butcher’s Apron.
The Conservative prime minister gave a bravado speech that heralded a blissful, prosperous future for «global Britain». May said that Britain was now open for free trade with the rest of the world, after having voted in a referendum last June to quit the European Union, after 43 years of membership.
Finally, after seven months of dithering and confusion on the matter, May declared that Britain would henceforth be seeking a «hard Brexit», whereby the United Kingdom would no longer seek to be part of the EU’s single market. It would therefore be free from obligations concerning migration and free movement of European citizens. That is, Britain would gain full control of its borders. A «soft Brexit» option would have involved a compromise between retaining single-market membership and accepting a degree of open borders.
No way. Theresa May was at last supposedly giving clarity on Britain’s position, saying there would be «no half measures, no half in, half out… Brexit means Brexit». The Financial Times approved of her upbeat message with the headline: «No more Theresa Maybe».
Listening to May’s prognosis of glowing prospects for «global Britain» – trading with the US, Canada, China, India and the Persian Gulf among others as bilateral partners – makes one wonder why Britain ever bothered joining the EU’s single market back in 1988, as her predecessor Margaret Thatcher had zealously committed to (15 years after its original accession to the European Economic Community, the precursor of the EU.)
Perhaps it has something do with the fact that nearly 50 per cent of the UK’s exports go to EU markets – free from any trade barriers. How Britain’s exports will fair in a global marketplace of cut-throat trade tariffs is a moot question.
According to the British government it’s all going to be rosy. That, by the way, wasn’t May’s position prior to the referendum. She campaigned for remaining in the EU and in doing so she had predicted that leaving the bloc would spell economic disaster for Britain. All that doom seems to have dramatically disappeared now in May’s apparently revised upbeat world outlook, without providing an explanation for her U-turn.
Here’s the thing: Downing Street’s supposed announcement of clarity on the Brexit this week raises, on the contrary, even more befuddling questions. May is aiming to conclude Brexit negotiations in two years with the European Commission based in Brussels. But that timescale is impossibly optimistic. Only a few weeks ago, her top diplomat charged with negotiating the Brexit was forced to resign because he dared to warn that a separation deal would take up to 10 years to finalize. And that longer-term view is probably a realistic assessment. For instance, it took Canada seven years to recently conclude a free-trade pact with the EU. For Britain, with many more legal entanglements to resolve, any less timeframe seems in the realm of «daydreams» – as some EU politicians caustically remarked following May’s speech this week.
Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson can crow all he likes that «the world is queuing up to do business with Britain». One of those potentially new trade partners is Britain’s old colony, the United States of America. Following President Donald Trump’s welcoming remarks for a «quick trade deal» with Britain earlier this week, there was much excitement from Johnson and other Brexiteers that a new lucrative horizon was indeed dawning.
The harsh reality is that Britain will be technically and legally a member of the EU until it concludes departure negotiations that could several years. Under those circumstances, as several EU politicians have pointed out, Britain will not be free to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with the US or any other nation. That means that Britain will not be able to gallop off into supposed new trade deals with the US, China or anyone else, until it finishes its no doubt protracted divorce proceedings with the EU.
The Brexit process is going to be a rude awakening for British leaders who seem to harbor delusions about Britain’s stature in the world.
This delusional thinking was revealed when Theresa May issued a barely veiled warning to the EU that Britain would not accept a «punitive» Brexit deal.
Despite her speech opening with charming talk of Britain being the best of friends with Europe, May drew a dagger towards the end.
«I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path. That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be the act of a friend,» said the British premier.
With a foreboding tone, she added: «Britain would not – indeed we could not – accept such an approach. And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.»
It was a glinting threat from May, akin to flashing a knife at the EU.
Earlier, May said in contradictory fashion that while Britain was leaving the single market, at the same time it was demanding «full access to markets as an associate member to make trading as frictionless as possible».
So, only in a rhetorical sense is the British government declaring a «hard Brexit» by purportedly «leaving the single market». For all intents and purposes, however, the British still want «full access» to the market, as May stipulated in her speech. And this privilege is to be had at the same time that Britain takes full control of its borders over EU migration.
That sounds like Britain wanting to have its cake and eating it. Supposedly being out of the market, but still in it for all practical purposes, while pulling up the draw bridge on the rest of Europe. Moreover, the British prime minister is declaring that if Britain does not get «full access» it will be perceived as «punitive» – and then in that case her country will «walk away» from negotiations.
Her haughty attitude sparked outrage across the EU. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s point man on Brexit, reportedly fumed that Britain’s «days of cherrypicking and a la carte Europe are over».
Tomas Prouza, the Czech’s EU minister, noted sardonically of the British position: «Trade as free as possible, full control of immigration… where’s the give for all the take?»
What May was alluding to in her threat of walking away was that Britain would undercut the EU by slashing corporation tax, thereby luring foreign companies away from continental Europe to set up shop in Britain. That is, turning Britain into a tax haven to cheat the rest of Europe.
May also hinted that Britain’s military forces in NATO might be pulled out of Poland and the Baltic states, which would have the effect of destabilizing these EU members, given their congenital paranoia over alleged Russian aggression.
The British government’s threats to the EU stems from a misplaced arrogant attitude of a has-been world power, which somehow still thinks that it can pontificate to other, perceived lesser nations.
With a ballooning trade deficit with Europe and an all-but extinct industrial base, the only asset that the UK can claim is its City of London global financial center – which accounts for 80 per cent of its national economy. Despite Theresa May’s supercilious tone, Britain will find that it needs Europe a lot more than Europe needs Britain. And if cut loose harshly, the former Great Britain is in no industrial shape to ply the global markets as it once did with the backing of its colonial armies of occupation.
Britain’s «hard Brexit» is all «hard talk» belying typical British subterfuge to wheedle self-serving concessions. Such conceited British attitude will only stiffen EU resolve to make minimal trade concessions in the final separation. If the British are seen to get a «cherry-picked» deal of access to the single market, yet be able to spurn any immigration, that would be tantamount to giving an exit license for other members of the EU to do likewise. And given the level of Euro-skepticism rising across Europe, Brussels and other pro-EU governments must, of their own necessity, act sternly towards Britain in its divorce arrangement.
Britain can indeed expect a «hard Brexit». On much harder terms from the EU than delusional British politicians are arrogantly demanding. Less Rule Britannia; more like Fool Britannia.