LONDON – “Brexit means Brexit,” Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has declared. So it must: the wishes of the electorate, expressed by however narrow a margin, must be respected, even though referendums have no place in Britain’s unwritten constitution, which is based, sensibly, on representative parliamentary democracy.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum to quell a rebellion in his Conservative Party, miscalculated so badly that his government failed even to plan for a vote to leave the European Union. Two months later, the fog is beginning to clear, and a way out of the Brexit maze can be discerned.
Brexit, it turns out, is not “Bruicide.” The referendum’s outcome has had little effect on the wider global landscape, and the impact on EU institutions is just another crisis to be managed, not the existential implosion that London-centric British newspapers imagine. May is in no hurry to act; nor is German Chancellor Angela Merkel (though, facing re-election next year, the increasingly desperate French President François Hollande says that he is).
May, who is as tight-lipped as Cameron was an open (if empty) book, has already created the institutional skeleton of a political strategy. Her government has created a department of international trade, which will be responsible for drawing up trade arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world (the European Commission had previously handled such arrangements). Another new department, the so-called Brexit ministry, will handle political, judicial, and constitutional negotiations.
The creation of these new departments has reduced the once-proud British Foreign Office to something of a think tank on international affairs, responsible for maintaining Britain’s public and trading relations around the world until things settle down again.
May’s approach has been to clasp the anti-European viper to her bosom, awarding the new trade department to a leading Brexiteer, Liam Fox, and appointing another, David Davis, as Brexit minister (officially, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union). The new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, too, was a leader of the “Leave” campaign.
The idea is that the three men, who never spelled out (or probably didn’t know) the consequences of Brexit during the campaign, now have to carry the can. There is the added satisfaction that all three have different ideas about Brexit, and that none of them likes the others.
Once the bureaucracy and broad parameters for the negotiations are established by early next year, May will formally launch the withdrawal process by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Two years of negotiations (longer if the EU agrees) will follow.
The three Brexiteers, after fighting one another like rats in a sack, will have had to come up with a package. By then, the next general election will not be far off, providing a second stamp of approval for Brexit.
That, at least, is the formal plan. But politics is, among other things, the art of managing the unexpected, which May and her advisers cannot have overlooked. The House of Commons almost certainly will be required to approve the application under Article 50. A few principled Conservative pro-EU MPs may vote against it, endangering the government’s slim majority, though the great majority will respect the electorate's wishes. The House of Lords will almost certainly vote no, but can only delay.
But, even assuming that Article 50 is triggered smoothly, the negotiations will be much rougher. Fox may find it relatively easy to secure good terms with the “friendly dominions” – Canada, Australasia, some African countries, and so on. But his talks with India will be trickier, and extremely difficult with China (though not with Russia, which is eager to make mischief for the EU). Between them, these countries account for around a third of Britain’s trade. The United States is likely to be hard-nosed in trade negotiations with the UK, but benign, placing Britain in the middle of the queue, rather than at the back, as President Barack Obama threatened.
The remaining half of Britain’s trade, which is with the EU, will depend on what May, Davis, and Fox can secure. May has voiced distaste for “off-the-shelf arrangements,” but something like Norway’s arrangement with the European Economic Area (EEA), with a few bespoke differences, seems likely to be Britain’s best option – access to the single market, but no participation in political and judicial institutions.
A key point is that EEA status provides for an “emergency brake” (of the type the EU denied to Cameron in February) on the free movement of people. As the Norwegian EEA Agreement puts it, “if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature liable to persist are arising,” limits on free movement may be applied.
With EEA status, Britain could retain “sovereignty” (actually loss of influence in EU decision-making) and “control of its borders,” two key (and much distorted) promises made by Leave campaigners. But Britain would still have to conform to all those niggling EU (and indeed US and World Trade Organization) regulatory standards. And if Britain wants to entice multinationals as a springboard to the European market, it will have to conform to EU rules on competition and other matters. Otherwise, under WTO arrangements (favored by Fox), it would face European tariffs and lose investment.
Once an agreement with the EU is reached, it will be up to May to get it through Parliament. This will create considerable opportunities for obstruction and delay from the anti-Brexit majority there, at a time when a slowdown– a direct result of the Brexit vote – will be sapping the government’s popularity.
This is why a second Brexit vote on the agreed terms of departure (favored by Johnson) should take place.Do you endorse them, May will ask voters, or do you want to stay? In the cold shower of reality, the vote may turn out to be different, as it was in Ireland and Denmark the morning after their EU referendums.
Then again, if the Labour Party continues to tear itself apart and May’s current popularity holds up, she could call an early election. Whatever she says now, British prime ministers often seek their own mandate, as Harold Macmillan did when he came to power following Anthony Eden’s resignation in 1957, and as Harold Wilson did in 1966 after receiving a wafer-thin majority in 1964. If she got it, her room for maneuver in the Brexit process would be greatly enlarged.