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Britain's mixed messages deepen Brexit rifts with EU

  • Published at 10:11 pm October 28th, 2016
Britain's mixed messages deepen Brexit rifts with EU

In the hours before Theresa May stepped to the podium in Birmingham earlier this month to lay out her vision for a "fully independent, sovereign" Britain, she made a discreet round of telephone calls to European leaders.

In the speech, May described the Brexit referendum in June as "the biggest vote for change this country has ever known." She promised to trigger divorce proceedings with the European Union by the end of March next year and she rejected the notion that Britain might opt for a deal similar to those of Norway or Switzerland – two non-EU countries that adhere to the bloc's rules on free movement of people in exchange for privileged access to its lucrative single market.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was mystified by May's metamorphosis from a quiet "remain" supporter to what seemed like a passionate crusader for a hard break from Europe, according to people in her entourage. The British seemed intent on "talking themselves into isolation," an official close to the chancellor said.

Within days, Merkel and others hit back. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised the EU would be "intransigent" with Britain. European Council President Donald Tusk described the choice for May's government in binary terms – either "hard Brexit" or no Brexit. The message from Europe was clear: If a rupture was what May wanted, then that is what she would get.

In recent weeks, confrontation has given way to widespread confusion. May has appeared to row back, sending what officials on the continent view as contradictory messages about what she wants. Divisions in her cabinet have deepened the sense of disorientation.

Former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio said this week, "The longer it takes for pragmatism to re-enter the debate, the higher the chance that the chilling effect of the unknown will cause permanent damage to both the United Kingdom and the European Union."

[caption id="attachment_25961" align="aligncenter" width="800"]British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels February 20, 2016 REUTERS[/caption]

Cartoon character

Some believe that May and her ministers have still not fully grasped the enormity of the Brexit challenge. Others fear that by giving Brexiteers what they wanted in Birmingham, May has boxed herself into a corner from which there may be no escape.

A French diplomat likened the British government to a cartoon character that has run off a cliff but not realized it yet: "They're still in the air now, but at some point they're going to look down and fall."

European officials recall May's predecessor David Cameron in the run up to the Brexit vote and say they have a sense of déjà vu: They see a risk that May and her entourage, a group with little experience outside the UK, will get bogged down in domestic debates and misread the EU.

Narrowing options

The British take a different view. Aides to May say she wants to give away as little as possible about her negotiating strategy until she gets an indication from EU leaders of what she can get from the talks. Her hope is to bypass the bureaucrats in Brussels through one-on-one meetings with leaders such as Merkel. One aide said the aim was to get other leaders to focus on "what she says, her actions," rather than being guided by other sources, such as Britain's often eurosceptic media. Complicating the task, though, is a lack of communication from May's inner circle, which includes two close advisers from her years as interior minister, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. This has left British diplomats on the continent largely in the dark, preventing the kind of informal back-channeling that might help the opposing sides in the Brexit standoff understand each other better. The big challenge will not be the separation itself but clinching an interim agreement on Britain's trade ties with the European Union within the two-year deadline for leaving triggered by Article 50 of the EU treaty. Such an agreement would tide Britain over until a final deal, which might take anywhere from five to 15 years to negotiate, is sealed.


A central problem for May's government is that Article 50 puts the country that is exiting the EU in a position of great weakness, says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London. EU countries can simply hunker down while the two-year clock ticks away, raising pressure on the leaver.

May, therefore, would be wise to avoid an approach that alienates the EU, Grant believes. Attempts from the British side to strengthen its negotiating position through veiled threats to slash corporate tax rates or veto European defence cooperation risk backfiring.

What Brexit observers may be underestimating is the impact developments on the ground could have on May's negotiating strategy.

A further challenge is to find a solution that keeps Scotland and Northern Ireland, whose populations voted to remain in the EU, on side. At a meeting with their leaders this week, May warned them against undermining the UK's negotiating stance by seeking separate settlements with the EU.