Brexit fundamentalists scored another victory on Wednesday, when the United Kingdom began the process of withdrawing from the European Union without a plan for what comes next.
Prime Minister Theresa May wrote to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to inform him that Britain intends is leaving the bloc. This triggers a two-year divorce process under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
May has revealed little about her strategy. The hope is that Britain can secure some form of preferential access to the European single market, but this seems unlikely given that she has prioritized immigration control.
Taking back control
In a concession to the hard right of her Conservative Party, May maintains that Brexit must above all else mean taking back control over who comes into the country.
That means ending the free movement of EU nationals into Britain on which the free movement of capitals, good and services (i.e., the single market) is conditioned.
Europe has made clear — before the Brexit referendum and since then — that Britain cannot cherrypick the terms of membership. If it wants to remain in the single market, it must, like Norway and Switzerland, allow Europeans to travel into the kingdom with few restrictions.
It makes no economic sense for Britain to stop them. It benefits from the influx of EU tourists, students and workers.
There are low-skilled British workers who suffer from cheap labor competition from Eastern Europe, but their losses are more than offset by the gains for everyone else.
May is about to throw these gains away for the sake of placating hardliners.
It’s not the first time Conservatives have put the interests of their party over country.
The referendum itself was a concession to fringe Euroskeptics. There was no clamoring for an in-out referendum in the country. David Cameron, May’s predecessor, only promised one in order to reconcile Brexiteers to his centrist agenda.
Next, prominent Conservatives, who had previously expressed no desire to exit the EU, joined the “leave” campaign in an attempt to advance their own careers.
Neither Michael Gove nor Boris Johnson succeeded in their personal ambitions. But they lend credibility to the false promises of Brexit.
It was on those promises that Britain voted to leave the EU: that it would save hundreds of millions of pounds annually to spend on health care; that the rest of Europe would cave and make a special deal.
None of these promises have materialized. Nor will they.