Published On: Wed, Jul 11th, 2018

Britain will end up worse off after Brexit melt-down

Brexit was always a colossal mistake, a massive own goal by British politicians and politicians out to scapegoat “Europe” for all their economic and political woes.

The best that could be salvaged after the narrow vote two years ago to leave the European Union was to negotiate a deal that would preserve access to the European market while freeing Britain from parts of the EU treaty that impinge most on its sovereignty.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement to the the House of Commons on Brexit.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement to the the House of Commons on Brexit.  (HO / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

That, at least, was the dream of those who hoped to avoid the worst — Britain ejected from the EU in a way that would cripple its most important economic and trading relationships.

It was never realistic that Britain could get all the benefits of EU membership while ditching the bits it doesn’t like. And that possibility seems more remote than ever following following this week’s blow-up inside the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May.

After months of maintaining a studiously vague position on the most difficult issues involved in negotiating Brexit, May presented her cabinet over the weekend with a new proposal for talks with the EU leadership.

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Her goal in the so-called Chequers agreement was to bridge the divide in her party between hardline Brexiteers and those more inclined to seek a middle way in negotiations with Europe. In this she failed spectacularly as three of her ministers, notably her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, quit the government and declared her proposal unworkable. Johnson, never one to mince his words, dismissed it as “polishing a turd.”

May wants to negotiate a deal that would preserve a “common rulebook” for goods and agricultural products (but not services) moving between Britain and the EU. She also proposes compromise arrangements on the European Court of Justice and customs arrangements, among other things.

All that would have to be agreed to by the EU by October in order to meet the agreed-on schedule for exiting the organization, but that isn’t the only or even the biggest obstacle. The revolt among Tory hardliners means May can’t even guarantee that her own party will give her a majority in Parliament for this watered-down arrangement, which falls far short of the clean break with the EU that she had promised after the Brexit vote.

To make things even worse for the British, now that May’s government is so weakened it’s almost certain the EU would demand even more concessions from London before agreeing to a post-Brexit deal.

The hard truth is that Britain now approaches Brussels as a supplicant, and the EU has no incentive to smooth the way to a deal for fear of encouraging breakaway sentiment in other member states. Brexit is bad enough; a “Frexit” would be fatal to the entire European project.

In the end, Britain risks ending up worse off than it began before it headed into the Brexit cul de sac.

In order to preserve privileged access to the European market, it could be forced to accept EU rules (and pay heftily for that privilege), while giving up the ability to influence how they are written. In the words of the Guardian newspaper, it could end up as “rule-taker, not a rule-maker.” Hardly a blow for British sovereignty.

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All this was sadly predicted well before the Brexit vote just over two years ago. The entire exercise came about as the result of an attempt by the former prime minister, David Cameron, to patch over bitter differences in the Conservative party over Europe and to counter a threat from the anti-EU, populist UKIP party.

It was an unnecessary vote on a self-destructive project that was cheered on by all the wrong people — Donald Trump among them. British politics since then have been consumed by how to contain the damage.

No wonder polls show many Britons are suffering from “Bregret” and would likely vote to stay in the EU if given another chance. Absent that possibility, and given the explosion inside May’s government, they will likely have to settle in the end for a lot less than they have now.

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Britain will end up worse off after Brexit melt-down