Theresa May's Brexit Plan I Want, I Want, I Want

Theresa May wanted to show a friendly yet tough face to her country's European allies. But her Brexit speech showed one thing above all: The British prime minister is blind to reality.

British Prime Minister Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May

A Commentary by

If it was Theresa May's goal to flood Europe with a glut of adjectives, then she was extremely successful on Tuesday. After Brexit, the British prime minister said, the United Kingdom will be "stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking." It will be a "secure, prosperous, tolerant" country, a "great, global trading nation" that is a good friend and ally.

But beneath the wave of superficial pleasantries, something much more uncompromising soon made an appearance behind the lectern at Lancaster House: the hard, craggy side of Ms. May. If the rest of Europe doesn't cooperate, the prime minister said, if the EU seeks a punitive deal in the course of the Brexit negotiations, it would have negative consequences for all involved.

Far from being a conciliatory address, May's speech was a catalogue of demands topped with a dash of threat. A great many of her sentences began with: "I want."

The advantage of May's speech is that Europe now at least knows a bit more about the direction Britain intends to go. Theresa May wants to pull the UK out of the single market and to no longer be subject to the verdicts of the European Court of Justice. She wants a free trade agreement and wants Britain to pay much less into the EU budget than it has thus far. And she wants to keep one foot in the customs union but hopes to keep the other outside -- though she didn't explain how she intends to perform this bit of gymnastics. The disadvantage of May's speech is that she has now convinced the rest of Europe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the British government isn't just nasty, but is also prepared to take the gloves off.

May was unable to be friendly and unyielding at the same time. Her speech was also an attempt to find her way out of the ditch into which she had pitched herself last autumn. Back then, she uttered the striking sentence: "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." It sounded like a declaration of war against the liberal, urbane, cosmopolitan Great Britain. Since then, much has changed. In the eyes of Prime Minister May, the world is once again full of opportunity. Openness is good, globalization perhaps is too and free trade is definitely a plus. At least from this perspective, May has once again become more pragmatic, which is to be welcomed.

Uncomfortable for Everybody

May is prepared to throw everything on the negotiating table that her country can offer the rest of Europe, including intelligence services, nuclear weapons and cooperation in the fight against terrorism. The prime minister didn't explicitly say so, but her message is clear: You on the Continent profit significantly from our contributions to European security, so don't push us away. That would be uncomfortable for everybody.

What is clear is that the government in London remains dependent on the goodwill of two partners: the EU and Donald Trump. Each has elements of risk. As soon as Britain, at the end of March, submits its formal, Article 50 notification to the EU of its intention to leave the bloc, time will no longer be on the country's side. If she's lucky, May will have 18 months to complete the divorce proceedings. When it comes to the framework that will govern the exit negotiations, Britain finds itself in a weak position. Furthermore, the EU has little interest in showing too much leniency with Britain and thereby risking that other countries might be tempted to follow the UK out the door.

When it comes to Donald Trump, nothing has changed: The situation remains unpredictable and chaotic. Even if May's government grovels its way into the good graces of the incoming U.S. president, it is unlikely that a British-American free-trade agreement would be completed as quickly as many Brexit fans in the UK hope. In this regard, May should be more honest with the citizens of Britain.

May used the majority of her Tuesday speech to promise her country a glorious future, but it is one over which she only has limited control. In the worst case scenario, it appears that she would rather slam the door shut and risk a cold, mucky Brexit than agree to a painful compromise. No deal is better than a bad deal, she said on Tuesday. If that is how she speaks with friends, one wonders how she might deal with enemies.

With its intention to leave the European common market, May's government has opted for the path of willful self-mutilation, at least when it comes to the country's mid-term economic prospects. It will take many years before British diplomats are able to complete a free-trade agreement with the EU and with other countries. The fruits of Brexit, if there are any at all, will only grow slowly. Until then, May will have to offer her allies more than just the graciousness of continuing to allow them to export Prosecco and cars to Britain. May needs Europe. Adjectives alone won't help her.


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freddie 01/18/2017
Your article sounds like what a jilted friend would or behave; embittered, resentful with sour grapes and all. So much so, a perfect gift for the remainers to convert to the Brexiteer camp. Two possible foes, Trump and Theresa, are two too many for Germany to handle so don't get carried away with your economic success. Germany has enough problems to grapple and more to come. The fracturing of Europe is real and not far behind. So hold tight you are in for a bumpy ride. Teresa May has been under constant criticism for not making clear the British government position now that she has you are criticising what she said. Yes, "I want", or wants are the imperatives spelt in precise form with a desire to negotiate. High time Germany and the rest of Europe behave reasonably. Her cards are now on the table about time Europe shows its hand bearing in mind Britain will indeed walk away from a bad deal. Using empty phrases such as "cherry picking" are not much of a starter.
pwells1066 01/18/2017
2. He's at it again
Another wonderful example of a correspondent's mind determined to see what he thinks his readers (in the original German) want to hear. The following passage shows his odd logic at work..."Britain finds itself in a weak position. Furthermore, the EU has little interest in showing too much leniency with Britain and thereby risking that other countries might be tempted to follow the UK out the door." If, as this assertion is correct, in that Britain has made a grave mistake to the extent that its position is now weak: Why should the Eurocrats be worried that other members will not also see that weakness in the position of Britain (which is a net contributor) and wish themselves (net recipients) also wish to withdraw)? If Brussels genuinely believes that Britain's positions will now be so weak; what is the point of trying to make life more difficult so as to deter others from withdrawing. I am guessing that Spiegels editorial position and German readership dictates the tone and direction of their reportage of Brexit. Would it not be fairer to the German readership to be told that those in favour of Brexit have as logical and 'moral' position as have the remainers. It is my view that the majority of folks in Britain now are in favour of 'getting on with it' and moving on in life. Do you think your correspondent can do likewise, or has he simply to continue to continue in the rut to which his ideology (or editor's instructions) has imposed on him. PS. After all, a grave is only a rut with the ends blocked up.
j_ja 01/18/2017
'if the EU seeks a punitive deal in the course of the Brexit negotiations, it would have negative consequences for all involved.' 'Far from being a conciliatory address, May's speech was a catalogue of demands topped with a dash of threat' These two statements are contradictory. As usual, the cognitive dissonance and refusal to see reality is on the continent. A trade deal is mutually beneficial. So why is only the EU refusing to accept the idea? Sharing intelligence is mutually beneficial. So why is only the EU refusing to accept the idea? Managed migration and an end to unlimited access mutually beneficial. So why is only the EU refusing to accept the idea? The problem is not the proposals, it is the fact that you think those culturally inferior uppity Anglos have dared question you malignant status quo. Does all this cognitive dissonance give you a headache?
phileus 01/18/2017
0/10 for objective analysis... 10/10 for subjective knee jerk reaction and cheap and deliberate misunderstanding! An article well below the standards of Spiegel's normal political commentary and analysis. First fact is the author shows his anti-Brit colours from the outset and things never improve from then on. As soon as the British PM outlines plans for objectives in Brexit negotiations (which every journalist in the continent has been clamoring to hear... and complaining about lack of clarity therein!) she has complaints of "I want" levied at her!... ludicrous!! Second fact is the Europeans had their chance when David Cameron went asking for help to make a viable case to remain in the EU almost excatly one year ago - to which the EU's political and administrative leaders closed ranks in one embarrassing "we're sticking together chaps" response, and gave no ground. Third fact - and the most uncomfortable for the EU - Britain will be free to trade openly with the rest of the world and make her own choices over the coming decades. She does not need Europe, but for trade and especially for security Europe doesn't half need her! If I was a European leader I would reflect very carefully indeed upon what Mrs May has said. I see today that Mrs Merkel has struck an admirably conciliatory tone in response: she is indeeda wise and trusted politician.
anthonythompson 01/18/2017
5. Theresa May's use of
Mr Scheuermann says that Mrs May's speech was a "catalogue of demands" citing her use of the words "I want" as evidence. A quick review of the text of the speech itself shows that she used these words 12 times and on NOT ONE occasion were they used in the sense that Mr Scheuermann suggests. Rather she was setting out a post-EU vision for Britain: "I want the UK to emerge ... stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking ... I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country ... I want us to be a best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too." And so it goes on. Mr Scheuermann hears what he wants to hear and in doing so he reveals paranoia at the heart of the pro-EU cause. The UK wants free trade with the EU and the rest of the world but not political union. What's the problem? The problem of course is that it puts a spanner in the works of those who have been using free trade - and of course the single currency - as a flight path to European political union. The hope before the Referendum and after has been that it would be possible to scare the British with terrifying scenarios of what it would be like outside the EU. It doesn't work. So now Plan B comes into action. Accuse the British of being "nasty". It won't work either. It is frivolous.
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