Chris Johns: Brexit now a problem without a solution for UK

European Union can offer only options that Britain has already ruled out

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May:  Florence speech “was essentially a conversation between herself and those cabinet members who want her job”. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May: Florence speech “was essentially a conversation between herself and those cabinet members who want her job”. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire

 

It’s worth noting that Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, made not one but two significant speeches in recent days. The first, to the United Nations, was delivered mostly to an empty hall. That’s a reflection of Britain’s diminished status in the world: UK prime ministers typically get a bigger and more attentive UN audience. Other leaders, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France, can still fill the room. May’s other speech, already parsed into oblivion, involved flying to Florence and addressing a gathering of mostly British journalists. I think they all travelled to Italy on the same aircraft.

The inevitable dissection of May’s Florence speech focused on whether or not she said enough to unlock the currently stalled Brexit talks. The virulently anti-European British press, all of whom must have hated going through European Union passport controls when entering Italy, have been delighted to play along with the UK prime minister’s bait and switch. Few of Fleet Street’s finest are willing to reflect on the simple fact that, with 18 months to go, Brexit talks haven’t got out of the starting blocks.

Tone of compromise

The media has happily declared May’s speech a qualified success, arguing that its new tone of compromise brings into view sunny Brexit uplands. The Times of London even suggested that the dropping of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric would help foster goodwill. The fact that May repeated, again, that she was absolutely not resiling from this position suggests that some members of the press weren’t paying very close attention.

May’s speech was essentially a conversation between herself and those cabinet members who want her job. To the extent that she had much to say to Brussels and Berlin it was to appeal to them to help her keep that job. Specifically, neither she nor anyone else has any idea about what the post-Brexit UK relationship with Europe can or should look like. So Brussels and Berlin have been asked to solve Britain’s problem: “Please can you come up with some ideas for the post-Brexit world?” Similarly, there was nothing to suggest that the Irish Border question has been dealt with.

Having created a problem they don’t know how to solve, they have now kicked the can down the road “for about two years”. At the very least, this was an admission that triggering article 50 with no preparation of any kind verged on criminal negligence.

The British still don’t get it: appealing for “partnership and creative solutions” sounds warm and fuzzy but ignores the fact that the only types of relationships the EU can offer the UK are Norway-style European Economic Area membership, Canada-style free-trade agreements or Turkey-style customs union arrangements. That’s it. May referenced by name these exact deals and explicitly and definitively rejected all of them. No number of appeals to imagination or partnership can get around the fact that the EU can offer only options that the British have already ruled out.

Hopelessly divided

It is, of course, possible – perhaps probable – that one side or the other will retreat from previously declared lines in the sand. May has already backtracked from many seemingly inviolable negotiating principles. But, as things stand, there is nothing the EU can offer that the British are willing to accept. Brexit has been delayed “for about two years” but the government remains at war with itself over what happens then and the rest of the country is just as hopelessly divided.

The two-year can kick simply moves the cliff-edge exit from 2019 to 2021. No wonder that the word from Whitehall is that the hardest (and supposedly most secret) work is now being done on the implications of failed negotiations and an abrupt crashing out of the EU.

The most positive thing to be said is that May could not have made a better speech. That’s because a better speech was not possible. Faced with irreconcilable demands, the only thing to do is to delay and obfuscate in the hope that something else turns up.

Brexit has now become a problem without a solution. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would end up like this. The clearest implication is that both the Remain and Leave camps are destined for bitter disappointment. The judgment of business is likely to be harder-headed than that of the press: Brexit has been postponed for at least (rather than “about”) two years; the uncertainty over what happens after that is both obvious and unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

According to the OECD, Britain will be one of the weakest economies in the world in 2018, growing at about half the rate of the euro area. May claimed in Florence that the British economy had been and always would be “strong”. She should pay more attention to history. The UK joined the EU in 1973 to arrest a century-long economic decline. That strategy worked.

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