Stumbling to the Starting Line Brexit Talks Set to Begin amid Chaos in London

Britain's crippled Prime Minister Theresa May is stumbling into Brexit negotiations, which are set to finally begin next week. She is doing all she can to cling to power, but recent elections mean it isn't even clear what kind of Brexit Britain wants.
British Prime Minister Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May


Shortly after Prime Minister Theresa May's election debacle, a man who had been largely forgotten saw fit to comment. At an economic conference in Poland, former British premier David Cameron offered his successor a bit of unsolicited advice -- the same man whose most recent forays into the public eye involved dressing up as a James Bond villain for a party and having pictures of his feet posted on Instagram by his wife. Cameron said that his fellow Conservative Party member Theresa May "is going to have to talk more widely, listen to other parties." He added that she should pursue a "softer" Brexit.

It was the kind of criticism that May could have done without.

The United Kingdom, after all, has been engulfed by political chaos . One week has passed since the Conservatives unnecessarily frittered away  their absolute majority in the House of Commons and since then, even the most assiduous scribes have been struggling to keep up with the speed at which political certainties have been crumbling. The situation in Westminster has experienced a complete reversal: Suddenly, the Labour Party -- left for dead not that long ago -- seems more unified and confident than it has been in years while the Conservatives, despite still being the country's most powerful political party, are eagerly tearing themselves apart. It has become unclear who has the say in the country. One thing is certain, though: It isn't Theresa May.

Ever since voters clearly expressed their lack of trust in May's leadership in the June 8 election, all manner of Conservatives are coming out of the woodwork, acting as though they had always known that the 60-year-old prime minister would never amount to much. Even John Major, yet another unsuccessful former prime minister, saw fit to voice criticism. It used to be drolly said of Major that he was "in office, but not in power." That bon mot now applies to Theresa May as well.

The effects of the turmoil in London, though, go far beyond Britain. On Monday, almost exactly a year after the Brexit referendum, negotiations for Britain's departure from the European Union are finally set to get started in Brussels. Yet whereas the remaining 27 members of the bloc are remarkably united on the eve of the talks, the British are poles apart.

A Facade of Resolve

To be sure, it has never been completely discernible what London's plan for the negotiations might look like. But right up until the election day, Theresa May entrenched herself behind a facade of resolve and repeated over and over again her mantra that "no deal is better than a bad deal." Yet what strategy her government might pursue -- or whether there is a strategy at all -- remains unclear. Nor is it obvious whether those who begin negotiating on Monday will still be in office a few months from now.

Theresa May is doing all she can to keep her party afloat, to the point that she is even willing to form a coalition agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, whose 10 members of parliament would be enough to give May a slight majority in the House of Commons. But even Conservatives aren't particularly enthusiastic about the plan, given that the DUP is seen as something of a strange Protestant group. The party includes climate change deniers, evolution deniers and members of the Orange Order. Some DUP MPs view same sex marriage as "immoral, offensive and obnoxious."

DUP support for the Conservatives in London could even jeopardize the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Belfast has been plagued by a political crisis for months. The carefully balanced regional power-sharing deal between Protestants and Catholics collapsed not long after DUP head Arlene Foster, the erstwhile first minister of Northern Ireland, was forced out due to a fuel subsidy scandal. Many are concerned that violence could return if the UK were to abandon the neutrality pledge it made as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of violence known as The Troubles.

Pressure from All Sides

But the DUP isn't May's only problem. Pressure from all sides is growing on the prime minister to abandon the uncompromising Brexit course she has thus far charted. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond -- considered to be more pro-EU than any of his cabinet colleagues and a man whose job, prior to the election at least, had been thought to be in danger -- has publicly demanded that May rethink her obsessive approach to the issue of immigration. It is more important to create jobs, he said, than to reduce the number of immigrants.

Hammond knows that such demands are supported by large companies such as Airbus, whose spokesman has threatened to move production facilities abroad should Brexit hinder the ability of its employees to enter Britain. Such a move could result in the loss of around 10,000 jobs. Critics want May to guarantee that those EU citizens currently living in Britain can remain, but she has thus far refused to do so.

Brexit hardliners make up the majority of Conservative MPs in the new parliament as well. For them, there are three Brexit promises that are non-negotiable: the withdrawal from the common market, the end of EU court jurisdiction in Britain and a significant reduction of immigration to below 100,000 per year. Because 48 MPs are sufficient to force May to face a vote of no confidence, they can exert considerable pressure.

Just how the prime minister intends to unify these divergent interests remains her secret. She does, however, seem open to compromise. Three-quarters of the members of her new cabinet are thought to be in favor of a soft-Brexit approach.

Nothing Short of Treason

This week, government sources said that May's administration could at least consider a model similar to that enjoyed by Norway. The country, like Iceland and Liechtenstein, is a member of the European Economic Area, which means they participate in the common market, but not in the Customs Union. Those countries, though, guarantee the free movement of persons, something that Brexit fetishists among May's Conservative Party would view as nothing short of treason. Some have even suggested that open warfare would be the result should May pursue this route.

A demonstrator wears a mask depicting Theresa May mourning the death of hard-Brexit.

A demonstrator wears a mask depicting Theresa May mourning the death of hard-Brexit.

Foto: AFP

Despite all the troubles facing her, however, May could remain in office for much longer than many think. Even if she makes concessions to Brussels, it is unlikely that her internal party opponents would topple her in the near future. The Tories' dramatic loss of approval has continued, with a post-election survey revealing just 39 percent support for the party -- and 45 percent for Labour. An additional survey result likewise spells bad news for possible May challengers: Only a quarter of those surveyed would like to see Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, considered to be the favorite as May's successor, in 10 Downing Street, with all other aspirants faring even worse.

There are, in other words, good reasons behind the fact that May is still in office. The alternative for the Tories wouldn't necessarily be another Conservative prime minister, but potentially a complete loss of power. Labour head Jeremy Corbyn could supplant May. He has called on his party to "remain in permanent campaign mode" due to his conviction that yet another election will be held this year.

Should that happen, Brexit negotiations would essentially be doomed to failure, particularly given that time is already extremely short as it is. Because May activated Article 50 in March, Britain will no longer be a member of the EU as of the end of March 2019. But because all member states and the European Parliament will have to approve any deal, talks will likely have to be concluded within the next 15 months.

May's EU negotiating partners in Brussels have spent months wringing their hands over incompetence on the British side -- and their fears have only increased since the election. "A weak British government increases the risk of there being no deal at the end," says one EU diplomat.

Succumbing to Naval Gazing

Many diplomats in Brussels are thus horrified at the spectacle of a Britain that has once again succumbed to naval gazing. Impatience is growing, as is the anger that all of Europe could spend months as the hostage of the Tories' internal party bickering. "London hasn't sent us a single piece of paper," says MEP Elmar Brok, a member of Germany's center-right Christian Democrats who will be representing European Parliament in the Brexit talks. "It's almost as if the Brexit referendum took place only yesterday." May's Brexit Sherpas did make two trips to Brussels this week, ultimately clarifying that talks would begin on Monday as planned. But it still isn't clear exactly what will be discussed.

One consequence of Britain's lack of a plan could be that the negotiations will now start just as the EU has always suggested: with priority being given to the future rights of EU citizens and the question as to how to calculate the money Britain will owe to the EU as a result of Brexit. May has long insisted that future relations between the UK and the EU should top the agenda, but the post-election chaos has led to a lack of clarity on the type of Brexit London actually wants. Initial signs indicate that EU citizens living in Britain will be granted far-reaching rights after all. But that isn't certain.

In the meantime, the EU is moving ahead on its own. Next Thursday, EU heads of state and government will meet for a summit, with Brexit and the negotiating strategy of the EU-27 being one topic up for discussion. At the meeting, EU leaders will take additional steps toward moving two EU agencies from their current locations in London to the Continent: the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. Competition to host those agencies is intense; Germany has proposed Bonn and Frankfurt.

The decision to relocate the agencies is no small matter for Britain. Losing them means that hundreds of workers, most of them highly qualified, will be leaving the country. And further departures could follow: So-called euro clearing -- referring to the clearing of euro-denominated derivatives transactions -- is a multi-trillion-euro industry for British banks, but because the European Commission intends to pass stricter laws governing the industry, London clearing houses may be forced to relocate to the Continent. That would be yet another bitter pill to swallow for the British finance industry.

No End in Sight

Already, the country's economy is suffering. Inflation has climbed to its highest level in four years, wages have stagnated and the country is far away from the growth figures once forecast for 2017. The scenario many economists thought would appear immediately following the Brexit referendum is now finally making itself felt after a one-year delay: An economic slide with no end in sight.

Economic instability, political disarray, international isolation: Many Brits who initially supported Brexit seem only now, after the unexpected election results, to realize the mayhem they have inflicted upon themselves. Indeed, this week has seen the inflationary use of a word that had long been deemed unseemly: "Breturn." The exit from Brexit. The fact that some have brought themselves to utter this work shows just how drastically the situation in the UK has shifted. Still, only the most optimistic of optimists believe that the British might change their minds.

One of them, though, is French President Emmanuel Macron , who received May in Paris this week. "Until negotiations come to an end, there is always a chance to reopen the door," he said, May smiling bravely next to him.

Just a moment before, right as the joint press conference following their meeting was commencing, the wind blew May's prepared statement right off the podium. But that wasn't to be the only awkward scene from her visit to Paris. Immediately after the conclusion of their statements to the press, the two made their way to Stade de France to watch a friendly between France and England. During the match, a wave cheer began circling the stadium -- but May missed her cue, resulting in an awkward photo of her standing alone, arms raised over her head.

The wave, though, had already passed her by.

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