Theresa May’s empty Brexit promises
National leaders seem to tend strongly toward dishonesty. Angela Merkell seems to be a straight-shooter, but we have Donald Trump and the UK has gone through a whole series of disappointing leaders. (Remember Tony Blair?) In the New Yorker John Cassidy comments on May’s blatant dishonesty:
Brexit has begun. On Tuesday evening, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, signed a letter formally giving notice that the United Kingdom intends to leave the European Union. On Wednesday, Sir Tim Barlow, the U.K.’s Ambassador to the E.U., delivered the letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. Next up: a long set of talks about the terms of Britain’s exit.
“When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the United Kingdom—young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country, and all the villages and hamlets in between,” May told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country. For, as we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests, and ambitions can—and must—bring us together.”
“We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today,” she added. “We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. We all want to live in a truly global Britain that gets out and builds relationships with old friends and new allies around the world.”
May’s speech was filled with so many false claims, so much cant, and so many examples of wishful thinking that it is hard to know where to begin. Her vow to represent “every person” in the U.K. is blatantly false. Last year’s referendum, in which 53.4 per cent of the county’s voters signalled a preference to leave the E.U., represented a victory for the old, the less-educated, and the xenophobic. The young, the college-educated, and the outward-looking all rejected, and still reject, Brexit. Many of them regard it as a willful act of self-destruction, and future historians will surely agree with them.
The upcoming exit talks, which are expected to last about two years, will cover a number of areas, including the terms on which British exporters will be allowed access to the European market, the rights of E.U. nationals living in the U.K., and whether Britain will have to pay a big departure fee. Although May is talking a brave game, her negotiating position is weak. Retaining open access to the E.U. for British goods would require the U.K. to keep paying into the E.U.’s budget and allowing labor to move freely across the English Channel. May knows that she can’t sell either of these concessions to the Little Englanders in her own party or to the jingoistic tabloids that have championed a “hard Brexit”—a clean break with the E.U.
In January, May said that Britain wouldn’t try to remain a formal member of the single market and instead would seek a new trade agreement with the E.U. that preserved the “frictionless” movement of goods and services. She also said that she was prepared to walk away from the negotiations if Britain didn’t get what it wanted, in which case the country would crash out of the E.U. with no agreement at all. She said “no deal” was preferable to “a bad deal for Britain.” That language went over well with the Daily Mail and the Sun, but it really amounted to the Prime Minister putting a gun to her head and threatening to shoot. As a negotiating ploy, it failed miserably.
The leaders of the E.U., meanwhile, want to discourage other member countries from following the U.K.’s example, and appear increasingly determined to impose a harsh deal on London. At an E.U. summit over the weekend in Italy, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was asked if there was any leeway to reach a friendly arrangement with Britain. “Some things are not for sale,” she said, indicating that the U.K. would not receive any concessions that undermined the free movement of goods and people within the E.U.
Merkel’s tough line echoed the sentiments expressed by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “We have no interest in punishing the U.K, but we also have no interest in putting European integration in danger over the U.K.,” Schäuble said. “That is why our priority must be, with a heavy heart, to keep the rest of Europe—without the U.K.—as close together as possible.”
Both sides are still staking out their positions, of course, and it will be some time before we know how the negotiations are going. Many European officials believe that May will eventually soften her stance, because leaving the E.U. without a deal would be catastrophic. . . .