A Futile Leadership Challenge from Brexiteers in Denial

The EU is not going to give another prime minister a better deal.

British prime minister Theresa May speaks with the American defense secretary James Mattis at Lancaster House in London, England, May 11, 2017
British prime minister Theresa May speaks with the American defense secretary James Mattis at Lancaster House in London, England, May 11, 2017 (DoD/Jette Carr)

With Brexit only four months away, its biggest supporters are still in denial about what it must mean.

They have called a confidence vote in Theresa May, believing that a different prime minister could negotiate a better deal from the EU.

They’re wrong.

Managing Brexit

Brexiteers have all along mistaken the withdrawal talks for a negotiation between equal parties. That may apply to negotiations on the future relationship, which the EU has insisted — and the UK has accepted — can only be held once Britain has left. But the process so far has been more legalistic.

It’s about managing Brexit, which throws up all sorts of problems, from food standards to the rights of British nationals living and working on the continent to the status of Gibraltar.

To the extent that political compromises have had to be made, they have been equitable. The EU is not demanding a total and economically damaging separation. British nationals in Europe will retain many of their rights. Spain has not conditioned its support for a Brexit treaty on the return of Gibraltar.

The withdrawal agreement May has negotiated is probably the best Britain will get. It provides for an orderly departure from the EU, minimizes the damage to businesses and citizens, and gives both sides time to negotiate a trade deal.

But the two most important provisions of that orderly departure — the transition and the Northern Ireland “backstop” — are unacceptable to the pro-Brexit right.

Transition

EU rules and regulations would continue to apply in the United Kingdom for almost two years after Brexit. But, as a non-member, Britain would no longer have a say in making the rules.

The argument for the transition is that it gives both sides time to negotiate the future relationship. The alternative is a sudden and complete expulsion from the EU single market only for the UK to presumably regain some form of access at some point. By then, supply chains would have been disrupted, British businesses would have pulled out of the EU and vice versa — and those economic links could not simply be restored.

There would also an impact on people. Without the transition, and time to negotiate their future status, 3.8 million EU nationals in the United Kingdom and 1-2 million British nationals in the EU would find themselves without the right to live and work in what will by then have become a foreign country.

Backstop

To avoid the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the UK has agreed to remain in a customs union with the EU as a “backstop” — unless and until a better solution can be found.

Brexiteers complain this would prevent the UK from striking new trade deals indefinitely, which is true. But what are the alternatives?

Either for Northern Ireland alone to remain in a customs union with the EU, which would create the need for a customs border in the Irish Sea, or a hard border in Ulster, where the absence of one has helped keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants for twenty years.

The first option has been ruled out by Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the second by Ireland and the EU.

Tradeoffs

That is the trouble with Brexiteers: they are unwilling to accept the tradeoffs that come with leaving the EU.

The EU has made clear from the start that it will not allow its “four freedoms” — free movement of capital, goods, services and people — to be separated. Yet Brexiteers still argue for unimpeded trade with Europe without paying into the EU budget, without respecting EU regulations and without accepting EU immigration.

This was — and is — never going to happen and those who fault May for failing to secure such a wonder deal either know it, and they’re hypocrites, or they don’t, and they’re in denial.