Circa three months after Britain invoked the Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, making the first formal step towards the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the substantive part of the withdrawal negotiations has started today in Brussels. The aim of the negotiations is to avoid a clear and total hard brexit – i.e. a divorce without any deal on future relations between the independent UK and the EU27. Despite seemingly minimalistic in ambition, Britain and the EU will presumably not achieve a grand consensus on most of the pressing economic issues and will limit themselves to secure technically achievable and politically rewarding deal on the “low-profile” aspects of the divorce. In other words, brexit will be neither “hard” nor “soft”, but only a one that would ultimately allow both sides to avoid political calamity and to claim hope for future (economic) rapprochement. And without a political miracle, Brexit will constitute a loss-loss development for the future of the UK and the EU.
In the past three months, a number of factors have changed the nature of brexit-related discussions. The European side of the table seems to be doing fairly well in terms of its ongoing political consolidation. After the historical turns of 2016 – meaning the election of president Trump, brexit referendum itself and the former Italian PM Renzi´s (initial) demise – the trend was reversed by President Macron´s electoral successes which have lately constituted the source of noticeable hope for the reenergizations of the Franco-German engine. On other side of the English Channel, the Theresa May-led Conservative party has just lost its control over the more important parliamentary chamber in the Westminster.
With one-eighth of the assigned negotiating time already passed, the UK might be finally bureaucratically ready for the negotiations, however the political aspects of brexit, are turning increasingly ambiguous. PM Theresa May called the recent UK general elections, only two months ago, with essentially four fundamental motivations on her mind: a) to solidify her political standing within her own party, b) to obtain a larger (thus more secure) margin of majority in the Westminster, c) to secure a public validation for her vision of the brexit and d) to embolden her standing vis-à-vis her European partners.
However, her electoral miscalculation has created even a more complicated reality and instead of greater clarity we have greater ambiguity. Not only that we are not assured about the desired brexit “softness” that will eventually be sought by the elites in the Whitehall, but also one cannot precisely foresee whether Theresa May´s surprisingly diminished leadership aura will not embolden the political ambitions of her successor to be –the list of potential candidates already includes ¼ of her current cabinet. Ultimately, it would be irresponsible to predict May´s current (political) survival chances. What has, of course, been made clear by now, is that the Prime Minister´s fate will depend on the brexit negotiations as the key part of the test of her leadership. However, with growing internal Conservative party discomfort with her primacy, with a resurging political opposition and with the lame-duck image in Brussels, PM May´s chances of managing a decent, proper and orderly (as suggested by herself) brexit are highly questionable.
Already understanding her predicament, PM May promised to “listen to all voices” in the party on brexit and to seek broader counsel on the ideal modality of Britain´s exit from the union. Does this automatically imply the dismissal of the concept of hard brexit, as some commentators are already suggesting? Certainly not. The main causal reasoning of brexit rests in the will of the British public to exercise greater control over the issue of migration. Whoever leads the British cabinet, whether it is PM May or anyone else, must have already acknowledged that continuing to guarantee the freedom of movement (to EU nationals) in any way, shape or form is currently politically suicidal. Thus, given EU´s persistence on attaching it to the four fundamental freedoms, the single market membership for an independent UK remains to be an unrealistic eventuality. Hence, the so-called “soft” brexit is simply not going to happen – at least without a profound shift in Britain´s domestic political reality.
However, on the side, the outlook for the endorsement of “softer” divorce elements being incorporated into the final deal seem to be considerably more plausible today, than anytime between the post-referendum pre-election era. A softer brexit would mean Britain and the EU agreeing on the reciprocal expat right guarantees and developing an almost membership-analogous approach to cooperation in science, education and possibly in internal security.
Very much in the spirit of the mentioned words, one must also underline that nature of brexit will not solely (or even mainly) depend on UK´s preferences and its negotiating abilities. Continental European leaders will be seeking a deal which would cause minimal damage to their economies and to the prestige level of the EU membership status as well. This automatically implies two certainties: no “cherry-picking” available (this goes mainly to the UK) and no room for unrealistically positive expectations on the modality of the negotiations (this shall go mainly to us – the attentive observers of brexit).
Thus, the mutually endorsed goal of the brexit negotiations shall be an agreement on the issues of clearly shared interests with a possible future opening to an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement. Given the clear time-constraints of the negotiation framework and increasingly complicated political context of brexit, nurturing hope for any agreement that would be significantly more ambitious, than the one just described, would be wishful and not thoughtful thinking.
Irrespective of the situation in the Westminster and Whitehall, the brexit talks will be challenging and a mutually positive end-result is far from realistically achievable. As these talks unravel today and will occupy the agenda of political operatives on the both shores of the La Manche channel until early 2019 – at least provided that everything in negotiations goes just as intended – Britain and Europe will embark on a final journey – one that none of the sides seemed to be really interested in just as recently as a year ago and one that will ultimately turn out to be is the interest of none. Despite the recent positive turn in the political spirit of Europe´s political elite, brexit remains to be one of the least fortunate geopolitical changes happening in Europe.
Tomáš A. Nagy
Defence and Security Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute