The Gamble of Mrs. May's Hard Brexit
Matthew JAMISON | 23.01.2017 | WORLD / Europe

The Gamble of Mrs. May's Hard Brexit

Theresa May's recent speech on the British Government's blueprint for negotiating Britain's forthcoming exit from the European Union was deeply disappointing, incoherent, though at least tempered with a certain degree of realism about the predicament Britain now confronts. The decision by a small majority of British electors to vote to leave the European Union on June 23rd has created the greatest political and constitutional crisis in modern European and British political history. The fact that almost half the British electorate and two constituent members of the United Kingdom - Scotland and Northern Ireland - as well as the capital city London (by far the greatest population centre in the UK) as well leading British cities such as Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, Brighton, Edinburgh and Bath  all voted to Remain, was almost completely overlooked by Mrs. May in her address on «Global Britain».

Mrs. May emphatically rejected some form of continued membership of the EU Single Market, the Customs Union, Associate Membership or other models such as the Norwegian model. By doing so Mrs. May has signalled that there will be no attempts at compromise or accommodations in an attempt to take into account the 48 % of Britons who voted to remain in the European Union. Brexit, the British Government has decided must mean total withdrawal. On the one hand this is simply the May Government facing up to what German Chancellor Merkel said in the aftermath of the June 23rd vote: «The British people have made clear they don't want to be part of the European Union, they don't want to be part of the Single Market». The main driver for the decision of a majority of the British public to endorse leaving the EU was the topic of immigration, in particular, the question of British national sovereignty in controlling Britain's own borders and reducing the level of EU citizens and other immigrants coming into the UK.

Thus, unless the British were willing to accept the principles of the fundamental four freedoms of the EU Single Market (which successive British Governments all the way back to Margaret Thatcher's helped to create): free movement of capital, goods, services and people - there was never going to be a possibility of the UK retaining access to the Single Market without moderating its position on total control over the free movement of EU citizens into the UK. This literally would have led to an unravelling of the EU with other member states demanding an a la carte arrangement and beginning to cherry pick over which elements of EU membership they liked and didn't like. Yet the very essence of European unification cannot allow such a framework to take hold of the structures of the EU. The EU in its current form is continually struggling to achieve cohesion and unity on a number of policy fronts. It would be virtually impossible to achieve European unity on important subjects if the Union became an in/out club with different rules applying to different member states. A recipe for confusion and chaos, which is perhaps what those that push this vision of a more flexible European Union, would like to achieve.

Thus, Mrs. May in her speech on Brexit demonstrated she is unwilling to show the political statesmanship and courage to face down the tyranny of the 52% and say that the vote to Leave was in actual fact no clear mandate to leave the Single Market which would entail continued acceptance of freedom of movement of EU nationals across the Single Market and that the UK while leaving the EU would opt for an arrangement to retain Single Market membership like Norway. Without seeking a middle way and compromise on the topic of EU freedom of movement Mrs. May has embraced the hard right of the Conservative Party and the concept of a «Hard Brexit», once again doing exactly as her predecessor did in consistently putting short term and short sighted party politics above the national (and heaven forbid) international interest. This is extremely disappointing as with real leadership, vision and strength Mrs. May could have pulled the country back from the worst possible outcome of the vote to Leave the EU.   

It is difficult to see many objectives happening which were listed in Mrs. May's Global Britain speech. The EU may be in no mood to give a generous free trade agreement to the UK with lots of access to the Single Market for British businesses that rely on trading with those sectors of the Single Market. Leaving the Customs Union could allow Brussels to erect a hard border between Northern and Southern Ireland despite the proclamations from May that the Common Travel Area between the UK and Irish Republic will be maintained. If the EU determines there will need to be some form of border checks and customs processes in the land border between the UK and the rest of the EU the Irish Government will in all likelihood have to comply as a member of the European Union. This is why a Hard Brexit could led to the undoing of one of Mrs. May's stated objectives, that of preserving the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As the former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton made clear the issue of Mrs. May's post-Brexit Customs Union is unworkable, and frankly, delusional.

The issue of a Hard Brexit and the potential for a hard border coming between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could become a significant issue in the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election especially as a majority of people in Northern Ireland, unlike England & Wales, but the same as Scotland, voted to stay in the EU. That combined with a local Northern Ireland heating scandal could undermine the pro-Brexit DUP and tip the balance of power to the nationalist anti-Brexit Sinn Fein leading to the progressive reunification of North and South Ireland in decades perhaps due to a desire to continue within the EU. Scotland could now almost certainly be heading to a second Independence Referendum. While unlikely, this issue has the potential to feed the calls and support for Independence and if a second referendum does not come within the next two-four years, it may certainly become a reality perhaps in ten years' time and a Yes vote may be more probable further down the road. So, by pushing a totally clean break and Hard Brexit Theresa May could potentially bring about the end of the United Kingdom. As with the looming Presidency of Donald Trump there are simply so many unknowns that Brexit has thrown up that it seems unwise to charge ahead for a full withdrawal from the EU and hoping for the best in terms of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and favourable customs deals.

But by outlining that whatever deal emerges from the exit negotiations, it will be put to a vote in the House of Commons and House of Lords would conveniently fall just before or in the run up to the 2020 General Election. Ergo, Mrs. May would seem to be planning to fight the 2020 General Election on delivering a hard, complete, full exit from the EU and hoping to keep the right wing of the Conservative Party content while attempting to trip up the Labour Party and drain away support from UKIP. This indicates that securing a substantial Parliamentary majority and hoovering up votes in the North of England off the back of a delivered Hard Brexit is the main objective behind Mrs. May's hard line on the Single Market and complete withdrawal.

Tags: UK  Brexit