Brexit has begun. On Tuesday evening, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, signed a letter formally giving notice that the United Kingdom intends to leave the European Union. On Wednesday, Sir Tim Barrow, the U.K.’s Ambassador to the E.U., delivered the letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. Next up: a long set of talks about the terms of Britain’s exit.
“When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the United Kingdom—young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country, and all the villages and hamlets in between,” May told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country. For, as we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests, and ambitions can—and must—bring us together.”
May’s speech was filled with so many false claims, so much cant, and so many examples of wishful thinking that it is hard to know where to begin. Her vow to represent “every person” in the U.K. is blatantly false. Last year’s referendum, in which 51.9 per cent of the people who voted signalled a preference to leave the E.U., represented a victory for the old, the less-educated, and the xenophobic. The young, the college-educated, and the outward-looking all rejected, and still reject, Brexit. Many of them regard it as a willful act of self-destruction, and future historians will surely agree with them.
The upcoming exit talks, which are expected to last about two years, will cover a number of areas, including the terms on which British exporters will be allowed access to the European market, the rights of E.U. nationals living in the U.K., and whether Britain will have to pay a big departure fee. Although May is talking a brave game, her negotiating position is weak. Retaining open access to the E.U. for British goods would require the U.K. to keep paying into the E.U.’s budget and allowing labor to move freely across the English Channel. May knows that she can’t sell either of these concessions to the Little Englanders in her own party or to the jingoistic tabloids that have championed a “hard Brexit”—a clean break with the E.U.
In January, May said that Britain wouldn’t try to remain a formal member of the single market and instead would seek a new trade agreement with the E.U. that preserved the “frictionless” movement of goods and services. She also said that she was prepared to walk away from the negotiations if Britain didn’t get what it wanted, in which case the country would crash out of the E.U. with no agreement at all. She said “no deal” was preferable to “a bad deal for Britain.” That language went over well with the Daily Mail and the Sun, but it really amounted to the Prime Minister putting a gun to her head and threatening to shoot. As a negotiating ploy, it failed miserably.
The leaders of the E.U., meanwhile, want to discourage other member countries from following the U.K.’s example, and appear increasingly determined to impose a harsh deal on London. At an E.U. summit over the weekend in Italy, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was asked if there was any leeway to reach a friendly arrangement with Britain. “Some things are not for sale,” she said, indicating that the U.K. would not receive any concessions that undermined the free movement of goods and people within the E.U.
Merkel’s tough line echoed the sentiments expressed by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “We have no interest in punishing the U.K, but we also have no interest in putting European integration in danger over the U.K.,” Schäuble said. “That is why our priority must be, with a heavy heart, to keep the rest of Europe—without the U.K.—as close together as possible.”
Both sides are still staking out their positions, of course, and it will be some time before we know how the negotiations are going. Many European officials believe that May will eventually soften her stance, because leaving the E.U. without a deal would be catastrophic.
In such a situation, British goods would suddenly face tariffs and would be subjected to customs checks. Even more damaging, a lot of multinational companies that have set up operations in Britain because of its access to the E.U. would move their operations across the Channel. Arguably, this process is already beginning. A number of big banks have said that they will be shifting staff from London to Frankfurt. BMW, the German car manufacturer that now owns the iconic Mini brand, is reportedly considering whether to build a new version of the compact car in Germany rather than Oxford.
May and her fellow-Brexiteers have dismissed these developments, but despite their talk about creating a “truly global Britain” and turning the U.K. into a “global hub,” they don’t have a viable post-Brexit vision to offer. To quote the FT’s Gideon Rachman, Britain is long past the days of empire, when it was “capable of blasting its way into global markets.” And it isn’t tiny Singapore either. It’s a medium-sized post-industrial nation off the coast of Europe, which is its natural trading partner.
The stakes go beyond economics, of course. By going ahead with Brexit, May is endangering the very union that her party, officially the Conservative and Unionist Party, claims to represent. In last year’s referendum, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to stay in the E.U. Once Britain leaves, Scotland may well choose to become independent and apply for membership on its own. (On Tuesday, the Scottish Parliament backed the call by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, for a second referendum on Scottish independence.) There would also be huge questions about the future of Northern Ireland, which, at some point, could opt to join the rest of Ireland inside the E.U.
It is still possible, of course, that May will manage to cobble together a deal that preserves some of the economic advantages that Britain has built up during its four decades of membership in the E.U. It’s even conceivable (although unlikely) that in two years time Parliament could reject the exit agreement, or non-agreement, forcing a general election that May might lose. For now, though, the wreckers are firmly in the ascendance, and today they are celebrating their victory.