Turning Brexit into Reality

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)

UK’s incoming prime minister, Theresa May, faces task of negotiating with the EU

Incoming British Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to move ahead with taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and this is the most likely future course, said the Atlantic Council’s Fran Burwell. However, a Brexit is not inevitable.

“There is a small percentage possibility of being able to walk this back. If that were to happen, Theresa May is one of those who could do this because she has negotiated with the EU,” said Burwell, vice president, European Union and Special Initiatives, at the Atlantic Council. But, she noted, this would be politically very difficult.

On July 11, May, the UK’s home secretary, became the inevitable choice to become the next occupant of No. 10 Downing Street after her fellow Conservative Party rival for the prime ministership, Andrea Leadsom, unexpectedly dropped out of the race. May was subsequently named Conservative Party leader. [Update: May took over as prime minister on July 13. She appointed David Davis as secretary of state for European Union relations, a  so-called minister for Brexit.]

The wider Conservative Party of 150,000 people was supposed to have voted on a choice between May and Leadsom. However, with Leadsom’s decision to drop out May was able to sidestep that rule.

The UK has changed prime ministers twenty-four times in the past century. Half of those leaders, including Winston Churchill in 1940, John Major in 1990, and Gordon Brown in 2007, came to power without a general election. May has ruled out a calling a snap election hinting that she will wait until 2020 for a general election.

In a June 23 referendum, 52 percent of British voters backed the UK leaving the EU over 48 percent who supported remaining. Soon after the results were declared, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would step down in October. On July 11, after May’s ascension to the top job became clear, Cameron announced that he would resign on July 13.

May, who had supported her country remaining in the European Union but is a euroskeptic, said she would honor the results of a June 23 referendum. “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it,” she said referring to a British exit from the EU.

A Brexit is triggered once the prime minister informs the European Council of the UK’s intention to leave—thereby invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which governs such exits. Next, the European Commission will negotiate the terms of the exit with the UK, which will only come into force once the European Council and the European Parliament both agree on the exit terms.

“Because she has been traditionally euroskeptic and yet campaigned—not with a great deal of enthusiasm, it should be noted—for Remain, she is one of the few in the Conservative Party who has a foot in both camps and still has the respect of both camps,” said Burwell of May.

“It would be extremely difficult politically [to walk away from a Brexit] and there would have to be either a general election or a do-over referendum,” she said, noting that other EU member states are firmly of the opinion that the UK is now on its way out of the bloc.

“I don’t sense any desire among the EU-27 to allow Britain to change its mind,” she added.

Fran Burwell spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Is a Brexit inevitable under a Prime Minister May?

Burwell: It is not inevitable, but it is close to sure. There is a small percentage possibility of being able to walk this back. If that were to happen, Theresa May is one of those who could do this because she has negotiated with the EU.

One can see a scenario where she does not trigger Article 50 until 2017, which is what she has said she will do, and in negotiating this it becomes clear how complicated this is at the same time that Britain’s economy continues to feel the impact of Brexit. Because she has been traditionally euroskeptic and yet campaigned—not with a great deal of enthusiasm, it should be noted—for Remain, she is one of the few in the Conservative Party who has a foot in both camps and still has the respect of both camps. It would be extremely difficult politically and there would have to be either a general election or a do-over referendum.

I do think she is being very firm about proceeding toward Brexit. The reactions that I have heard from the remainder of the EU is that Britain is now on its way out. I don’t sense any desire among the EU-27 to allow Britain to change its mind.

Q: How can May minimize the damage to the UK from a Brexit? In other words, what is the best deal that the UK can get out of Brexit negotiations?

Burwell: The best deal is going to be one that would have seemed very unlikely at the beginning of this process, which is going to be along the model of Norway or Switzerland. Britain will, in one comprehensive agreement as in the case of Norway, want to remain part of the single market. Or they will want to remain in the single market with many different agreements, as Switzerland has done.

In return for that access, they will have to accept migration from the rest of the EU perhaps with an emergency brake of some kind. Politicians from both Remain and Leave have made clear that those EU migrants that are currently in the UK should be able to stay.

In addition, both Switzerland and Norway pay into the EU budget, perhaps not as much as the UK does as a member. So may there will be some reduction there [for the UK if it were to leave the EU]. It sounds odd that Britain would agree to such a thing because it removes them from a seat at the table and they have to agree to the rules. It does speak to removing the primacy of EU law over British law and, therefore, gives them that sense of sovereignty, which was a major factor in the Brexit vote.

Q: Immigrants and British contributions to the EU were major factors in the Leave campaign. Would a deal that keeps these two issues intact be acceptable to those who voted to Leave the EU?

Burwell: One of the most surprising things about this referendum has been the behavior of the Leave campaign after winning the vote. Most of their leaders are now not in a position of political influence, unless Theresa May chooses to appoint them to her cabinet. They have backed out of wanting to be a decision maker in implementing [a Brexit]. They have walked backwards on what they said were essential needs in terms of immigration. One of the most surprising things on the morning of the twenty-fourth [of June] was that they made clear that they—both [Conservative Party member and Leave advocate] Liam Fox and Nigel Farage [who stepped down as leader of the UK Independence Party after the referendum]—were in no hurry to start the process of a Brexit by triggering Article 50. The behavior of the Leave campaign has been a bit puzzling.

Q: Can May preserve Scotland’s place in the EU and in the world’s largest single market while simultaneously pushing ahead with a Brexit?

Burwell: It depends upon the deal that eventually is made. If the UK is part of the single market, then Scotland will be, too. If Scotland were to try and leave the UK to stay in the single market, one of the problems is that much of their economy is tied to the UK so it is going to be a very difficult choice for Scotland unless oil wealth returns. I think Theresa May will probably be able to finesse this. In some way Britain will remain part of the single market. How exactly that happens we don’t know. I think the cost of not being so would be challenging.

Q: Is the EU better off with a Brexit?

Burwell: No, it is not better off with Brexit. I don’t think you’d find anyone who would argue that. There is a feeling in some circles that after the past three years of British introspection over this referendum and constantly wanting to renegotiate its arrangement with the EU that the boil has been lanced and it is now time to get on with things on the EU side.

Almost all would have rather that this had not happened. This will have a major impact not only on the EU-27 economy but also on the UK economy, and also on the relationships between the different EU member states. Everyone, for example, counted on the UK to be the free market voice. Even if they did not agree, they felt that one was needed. The UK was also a balance to Germany and a balancer among the big member states. Those things will be sorely missed.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.