LONDON – “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May, the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, insists. It is a simple and powerful slogan that sends an unmistakable message to all who have been hoping for a reevaluation of June’s referendum result. The UK, it seems clear, will be leaving the European Union. But that is where the clarity ends.
When Charles de Gaulle stood on the governor’s balcony in Algiers on June 4, 1958, he told a crowd of French Algerian settlers, “Je vous ai compris !” (“I have understood you!”). Within a few years, he would negotiate Algerian independence, infuriating those same settlers. “Understand,” it turned out, did not mean “sympathize.”
May’s favorite sound bite could be similarly misleading – a possibility that has not been lost on her Conservative Party’s pro-Brexit right. Does the “Brexit” of which May speaks entail the kind of “hard” departure from the EU that many, if not most, “Leave” supporters want, or will she pursue a softer approach?
A “hard” Brexit would entail the severing of all existing links between the UK and the EU: no more contributions to the common budget and an end to free labor mobility. This position assumes that Europe is in economic and cultural decline, and thus has nothing much to offer the UK, which would benefit far more from deeper ties with, say, the emerging economies of Asia and South America. Hard Brexit is, in essence, an amputation.