PARIS – Just after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, in which she outlined her government’s objectives in the upcoming negotiations on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, one well-known expert and political commentator, who once worked at 10 Downing Street, was positively impressed. “You cannot speak of ‘Perfidious Albion’ any longer,” he told me when I met him in a London club. “Theresa May has been crystal clear: Brexit means exit.”
My interlocutor had voted in last June’s Brexit referendum to remain in the EU, but like much of the country, he welcomed May’s speech. “If you search for an image to describe today’s Great Britain, speak of a ‘defiant lion,’” he told me, before emphasizing three key points.
For starters, he said, the European model of integration is in crisis, and the EU has proved to be incapable of reforming itself. Leaving the bloc – not like a rat scurrying off a sinking ship, but with style – is proof of British realism. Moreover, there has always been a disconnect between the UK and the EU, because the project of European integration was presented as primarily economic, when it was, above all, political in nature. The EU single market, like the Eurostar railway that connects London to continental Europe, was not enough to turn Britons into Europeans.
Second, despite the obvious difficulties, a clean break with the EU is probably far simpler than negotiating a complex arrangement with the remaining 27 member states, especially if one’s priority is to keep the British Conservative Party unified and in power.