LONDON – Conservative Brexiteers – who campaigned for the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union – continue to blather about building an open, outward-looking, free-trading Britain. But the UK is in fact turning inward. Prime Minister Theresa May, who styles herself as the UK’s answer to Angela Merkel, is turning out to have more in common with Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, than with Germany’s internationalist chancellor.
May set out her vision for Britain’s future at the Conservative Party conference this month. She pledged to trigger the UK’s formal exit process by the end of March 2017, and declared national control over immigration – not continued membership in the EU single market – to be her priority in the upcoming “Brexit” negotiations. That stance puts the UK on course for a “hard Brexit” by April 2019.
EU governments rightly insist on freedom of movement as a central pillar of the single market, and May’s nativist lurch has already prompted Merkel and other EU leaders, notably French President François Hollande, to take a tougher line with the UK.
The pound has duly plunged on currency markets, anticipating the economic harm of a hard Brexit: costly trade barriers – customs controls, rules-of-origin requirements, import duties, and discriminatory regulation – will divide UK and EU markets and affect nearly half of Britain’s trade.