Sign Up

Brexit Means Brexit: May’s Time or May…hem?

Message to London: The UK’s relationship with the EU cannot be reduced to satisfying purely economic and financial interests.

July 22, 2016

Message to London: The UK’s relationship with the EU cannot be reduced to satisfying purely economic and financial interests.

The first declarations of Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, were meant to be reassuring. They reflect her reputation for poise and steely determination.

They have also brought some clarity as to her government’s priorities — implementing Brexit, offering more social justice, an open economy and less austerity. She has also ruled out early elections and a second referendum.

Nevertheless, Theresa May’s program seems designed to galvanize a groggy British public opinion to face a break-up of the European Union as a whole. What it does not deal with are the difficulties specifically linked to the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU-27.

Can one bank on good faith?

Brexit negotiations imply “good faith” on both sides. However much the UK government may wish that the process would involve direct negotiations with all concerned, this is wishful thinking.

This closes the door to the UK’s hope to have an intergovernmental conference preparing a treaty change, in which it could seek support of alternative majorities of EU Members to succeed with many of its own demands.

This wishful thinking is epitomized by the superficially amicable statement of Boris Johnson at the meeting of foreign Ministers in Brussels advocating a leading role for the UK as part of its continued engagement with its European partners.

However, these affirmations might be interpreted less charitably if one sees them as reflecting the latest version of its traditional “divide and conquer” policies toward Europe.

Too clever by half?

When viewed in this light, Liam Fox’s intent to pursue in parallel trade deals with third countries is not very conducive to creating the right atmosphere for constructive Brexit talks. As it stands, it can (and perhaps is meant to) be construed as a veiled threat.

The reality is that the UK will be dealing with the EU rather than its individual member countries whose unanimous support will eventually be required.

Failure to reach an agreement has one of two consequences: It will either force the UK to have to cope with a more cohesive, integrated and intransigent EU, born in reaction to Brexit.

Or, if contagion sets in, it will have to face up, in due course, to a breakup of the EU – which, of course, would render further negotiations pointless.

How to manage very contradictory expectations?

The former outcome would only reinforce the UK’s isolation, while the latter would prove disastrous for the UK, the EU and the world at large. It would leave the British with the meager consolation of being (maybe) slightly less badly off than their erstwhile Eurozone partners.

A major problem Theresa May must contend with, in formulating coherent objectives for Brexit, is reconciling the contradictory views held by various strands of opinion in her country among “leavers,” while also considering the views of the large minority of “remainers.”

The wild promises and untruths bandied about during the Referendum campaign should be discarded forthwith (some already have been).

But the British people must be told that, however strong the desire of the EU to build a constructive relationship with the UK may be, it cannot be whittled down to satisfying purely economic and financial interests.

If improvements and modifications, then only for all

The UK cannot realistically expect to gain concessions that would provide it with a more favorable treatment than any of the Member States. This implies, for instance, that any flexibility in limiting the freedom of movement of people is subject to amending rules applicable also to all other members.

In the same vein, the EU may wish benefit in the future from the considerable British experience in shaping its financial policies, by agreeing to an appropriate “consultation” procedure.

Even this should be in the form of rights granted the EEA area as a whole rather to the UK in particular. In any case, what is to be avoided at all cost is granting non-EU members any form of veto over EU legislation.

Not to be done in two years

However desirable the inclusion such “flexibilities” into the Brexit deal might be, it is highly unlikely to be achieved within the two-year negotiating period. Their implementation would in all probability require the lengthy and uncertain procedure of “treaty change.”

It follows that, in order to reduce uncertainty in the interests of all parties concerned, the negotiations surrounding the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union should be clearly separated from those pertaining to any future relationship, even if the latter could be initiated in parallel.

Time for realism in London

These limitations increase the likelihood that, whatever agreement (if any) is achieved, it will prove “unacceptable” to a significant part of the UK public opinion.

One should be absolutely clear that a “second referendum,” aimed at approving it, would not be capable of “reversing” Brexit.

The only alternative it could offer is the withdrawal from the EU without any deal at all. Once Article 50 is triggered, there can be no backpedaling.

As the consequences of Brexit unfold, the tensions created may put the stability of the British parliamentary democracy into jeopardy.

Not only are the two main political parties deeply split internally but beyond that, overlapping lines of fracture exist as well: diverging interests between the constituent parts of the UK, between generations and between socio-economic groupings.

Bridging such differences is necessary to reunite the country and ensure its future prosperity outside the EU. It will probably require waiting for the results of the next elections.

Their outcome is all the more uncertain that the British “first past the post” electoral system could yield totally unexpected results if the two main parties are unable to present coherent programs, which will define their respective vision of the UK outside the EU.

Turning the potential mayhem created by the unexpected referendum result into an opportunity is only possible in the unlikely event that parties come out strengthened from their negotiations.

Not just Britain’s problem

It will prove at least as difficult for the EU 27 as for Britain to overcome their own internal differences. Neither side is likely to compromise their vital interests ending in an impasse.

Reform must be the priority of the EU 27, while reuniting public opinion around a program for a shared future should guide British leaders.

Public opinion, craving for change and an end to corrupt partisan politics, is ready – and indeed anxiously awaiting – to meet the challenges ahead, including the necessary sacrifices: Nostalgic politicians should retire leaving the younger generation in charge and responsible for its own future.


UK will deal with the EU rather than individual member countries whose unanimous support will eventually be required.

EU's relationship with the UK cannot be whittled down to purely economic and financial interests.

UK cannot expect to gain concessions that would provide it with a more favorable treatment than any Member State.

To reduce uncertainty, negotiations surrounding Brexit should be separated from those pertaining to any future relationship.