The UK is due to leave the EU on Friday next week without arrangements for either a transition or a future relationship. Prime Minister Theresa May wants a short delay to see if she can finally get Britain’s Parliament to agree to her exit plan. The EU is likely to grant it.
This sort of end game was always probable given the importance of the issues at stake. The delay will ratchet up the pressure on all of the parties, until one of them cracks.
Readers of this blog will know the background by heart. Britain’s Conservative party government has spent two years negotiating a transition and exit agreement. The draft agreement is a relatively ‘soft Brexit’ intended to align the UK with the EU’s trading and regulatory arrangements and making these hard to change without leaving Northern Ireland, part of the UK’s sovereign territory, subject to EU rules.
But a big chunk of May’s party want a ‘hard Brexit’ – with whole sovereignty, fewer ties to the EU and more open to international trade – and won’t support her agreement.
While the opposition Labour party is supportive of a softer Brexit, they are not willing to help May out of her problems. And the EU has ruled out changing the deal too. So deadlock.
Who is most likely to crack?
- First, the Labour party, thinks your correspondent. If May credibly commits to leave without an agreement at the end of the delay period, enough Labour MPs are likely to vote for a deal which commits the UK to a close relationship with the EU, and hope that they will profit from a split in the Conservative party.
Result: a ‘soft Brexit’ and a wobbly future for May’s government.
- Second, May and the ‘soft Brexit’ faction of the Conservative Party. Knowing their party and voters want Brexit, they will grit their teeth and endure the unpalatable, blaming it on everyone else. A few more of her MPs will defect but not enough to change the parliamentary arithmetic.
Result: a ‘hard Brexit’ – Britain leaves without an agreement and the parties frantically cobble together something for damage control.
- Third, the EU cracks. No sign of this so far but it does have a lot riding on this deal. Letting the UK exit the agreement without compromising its sovereignty can be seen as an admission of reality, rather than a defeat for the EU.
Result: a ‘soft Brexit’ and a signal of less close political and economic ties between the UK and the EU.
- Fourth, a tactical retreat by the ‘hard Brexit’ faction of the Conservative party. Worried that Brexit might be postponed indefinitely, and fearing a referendum or general election which might not go their way, they hold their noses, vote for May’s deal and put their energies into replacing her, and in the fullness of time, her deal.
Result: a ‘soft but unstable Brexit’ with the potential for an abrupt hardening of the UK position during later negotiations.
Of course these do not exhaust the possibilities. Other scenarios include yet more delay (although Brexiteers are likely to draw a line eventually), a collapse of the Government, a general election and/or another referendum.
And while the current deadlock may be broken soon, the battle over the closeness of the UK’s relationship with the EU will remain one of the defining issues of UK foreign policy for years to come. (For a real life example of what this means, look at the debate in non-EU Switzerland over whether to contribute €1 billion to the EU’s subsidies to its poorer member states).
By offering Britain an unattractive choice between submissive closeness and traumatic separation, the EU has helped nurture a spirit that over time may drive the EU and UK further apart, politically and economically. By failing to come up with a Brexit plan which could bridge its warring factions, Britain’s political class has dented the country’s reputation for stability and good governance that will be its principle asset in a post-Brexit world.