A Threat to May’s Unrealistic Brexit Stance

British Prime Minister Theresa May is entrapped in a maze of blind alleys, self-delusion, and bitter divisions over the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the rest of the European Union (EU) after Britain is due to leave the EU in just over a year’s time—at precisely 11:00 p.m. on March 29, 2019.

She will try to grope her way forward in a major speech on March 2, even though she is still far from finding solutions likely to prove satisfactory to her governing Conservative Party, to Parliament, or to British voters—let alone to the EU itself.

On February 26, her task was rendered even harder by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, who declared his support for a specially negotiated form of customs union with the EU after Brexit, an option that May has specifically ruled out by drawing a red line through it.

Corbyn’s move could cause severe parliamentary difficulties for May in the coming months, which indeed was his main intent.

May is trying to achieve a series of objectives:

a.  Keep herself in 10 Downing Street, and thus in charge of Brexit, which entails

b. Cobbling together a united front in her fractious Conservative Party, despite irreconcilable internal conflicts over the UK’s future links with the EU, so as to

c.  Avoid being brought down by a divisive leadership challenge and

d. Maintain the confidence of Parliament, despite her frail working majority, which is in turn necessary to

e.  Avert a general election that Corbyn could possibly win.

It is notable that all these are primarily domestic political goals, to which the UK’s longer-term economic, political, and national interests have largely been subordinated. Although Corbyn is also playing political games in his attempt to replace May in Downing Street, his customs union proposal can at least be presented as an attempt to put the country’s interests first.

May has had to focus on domestic politics because her party’s leadership is bitterly split between ardent Brexiters demanding a “clean break” from the EU and those who want to retain close economic links with it after leaving. To maintain a semblance of unity in her government, she has been unable to advance clear, practical proposals in Brussels that would alienate one side or the other and risk a government crisis.

Her hands have also been tied by her own “red lines” which include no UK membership of the EU single market or customs union, or British subservience to the EU Court of Justice, which rule out most feasible ways of maintaining strong future trade links with the Continent.

At an “away-day” conclave with ministers on February 22, May patched together a ramshackle proposal for “ambitious managed divergence,” a complicated system providing for varying degrees of conformity with EU rules for different sectors of the British economy. This would be extraordinarily difficult to implement—and the EU has already rejected it—but the formula can be interpreted as a victory by both sides.

Before Corbyn’s intervention May had been expected to explain this plan in her forthcoming speech, which may now have to be somewhat modified. After months of obfuscation by the Labour Party, Corbyn has finally put a more concrete plan on the table which could at least serve as a solid basis for negotiations with the EU—although there are many aspects that the EU will not like, such as special treatment for UK state aids to industry and nationalization under a future Labour government.

Corbyn has also at last defined a clear difference on Brexit between the Labour and Conservative parties, although he also has to maneuver carefully to try please his pro- and anti-Brexit supporters.

Corbyn’s customs union proposal has been welcomed by leading British business representatives and could also help avoid the dangerous introduction of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and Ireland after Brexit, a problem that May has so far failed to resolve in negotiations with Brussels and Dublin—apart from reaching general agreement that it shouldn’t happen.

The Irish issue remains explosive. On February 28, May criticized an EU proposal for a possible “last resort” solution that would establish a common regulatory area for the whole island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, which would probably mean setting a new customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Amid fury among the Northern Irish politicians on whom May relies for her parliamentary majority, the prime minister denounced the idea as a threat to the “constitutional integrity” of the UK.

The most pressing risk for May arises from the need for a parliamentary vote on an upcoming bill on trade remedy measures, such as anti-dumping duties, required to implement Brexit. A small group of pro-EU Conservative parliamentarians plans to offer an amendment endorsing the objective of a customs union, which, if approved with the support of Corbyn’s Labour Party members, could deeply embarrass the government and knock one of the main props from under May’s Brexit stance.

This is just the kind of thing that May has been desperately trying to avoid ever since she entered Downing Street after voters rejected EU membership in a June 2016 referendum, and even more since she lost her overall parliamentary majority in a botched national election in June 2017.

The government will almost certainly postpone a vote on the customs union amendment until after local elections in May, in which the Conservatives are expected to fare badly. But its legal experts are now working out whether the prime minister would be bound to seek a customs union if she lost the vote on the amendment, thus abandoning one of her main red lines and splitting her party leadership.

That is no doubt what Corbyn would like to achieve. But he will have done the entire country a huge service if his customs union proposal succeeds in switching the focus of discussion from delusional solutions inspired by domestic politics to a serious debate on the reality of the UK’s plight and practical ways to preserve the country’s national interests after it leaves the EU.

Reginald Dale is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Media Network in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. He is a former European editor and US editor of the Financial Times and a syndicated columnist for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

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Image: Theresa May speaks to reporters outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, on July 11 after being confirmed as the leader of the Conservative Party and the United Kingdom’s next prime minister. (Reuters/Neil Hall)