The Decline and Fall of Brexit
by Jacek Rostowski-Mareeg.com-LONDON – In the beginning, British Prime Minister Theresa May had a plan: “Brexit means Brexit.” The idea was to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union so fast that voters would not realize they had been sold a bill of goods during the EU referendum campaign and should therefore not punish the Conservative Party for having lied to them.
The plan was to pretend that whatever deal was negotiated with the EU would be a “bespoke” and “best possible” Brexit, allowing Britain to quit the bloc while retaining unfettered access to the European market. In strictly partisan political terms, the plan made sense right up until the snap election last June, when May lost her parliamentary majority.
To be sure, May recently scored a victory when she faced down Tory Europhiles in the House of Commons. But it hardly matters. Since last June, British politics has been spinning around the same conundrum: how to avoid the sudden destruction of much of British manufacturing – which depends on European just-in-time supply chains – without also accepting the “Norway model” of obeying EU rules without having any say in making them.
To help the May government stave off disaster for British manufacturing, the European Commission has graciously agreed to a 21-month “implementation period” that will follow the UK’s official exit on March 29, 2019. The idea was that this period should be used to settle most of the details of the future relationship. Yet May has already squandered the opportunity by continuing to insist on so-called red lines, which include rejection of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
While May is trying to replicate the benefits of frictionless trade within the European single market, her red lines make this impossible for the Commission to accept. As a result, the Brexit negotiations have gone nowhere, and reaching a final agreement in time for “Brexit day” has become virtually impossible. Moreover, even with the “implementation period” delaying “economic Brexit” until 2021, there simply is not enough time to restructure British manufacturing so that it can survive the introduction of the normal border controls that operate outside the EU.
Foreseeing disaster, pro-Europeans in May’s government have proposed a “Jersey model,” whereby British manufacturing alone would remain in the EU customs union, single market, and common value-added-tax area, while free movement of labor and services would be curtailed. But this is a non-starter for the EU, which insists on the inseparability of the “four freedoms” (free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor).
Nor can the vexing question of the Irish border be resolved within the confines of May’s red lines. In December, May agreed that there would be no physical or economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member state. But she has also conceded to the Ulster Protestants that there will be no border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. These two promises cannot be reconciled, given that there is to be a hard border on the English Channel. May’s only way out, then, is to avoid a hard border with continental Europe by accepting the four freedoms (which also requires accepting ECJ jurisdiction).