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Brexit or Breakup?

STOCKHOLM – Even after abandoning its empire, the United Kingdom hesitated for decades to join Europe. But it eventually did, and in the past half-century it became a proponent of European Union enlargement, and a champion of key EU policies such as the single market.

But soon it will be one year since the UK decided, by a slim majority, to leave all of that behind. In the past 11 months, we have been told repeatedly that “Brexit means Brexit” – a phrase that leaves one none the wiser as to what Brexit actually means. But now that the UK has invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the fog has started to lift. The UK has clarified some of its objectives for leaving the bloc, and we can begin to get a sense of how the process will play out over the next few years.

For starters, we know that the divorce will not be easy. Rather than pursuing a Norway- or Turkey-style arrangement, in which the UK would maintain some access to the single market or customs union, British Prime Minister Theresa May has opted for a “hard Brexit.” She has made it clear that controlling immigration and leaving the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction are her primary objectives. And with her Conservative Party poised to win a solid majority in the general election on June 8, the UK will almost certainly stay this course.

In its negotiations with the EU, May’s government will want to discuss a new UK-EU partnership alongside the terms of the divorce. But, so far, the European Council has furnished its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, with a mandate only for the divorce stage of the process. It will not expand that mandate to include talks on a future UK-EU partnership until the first stage nears completion.