Adam is reading International Relations at the Department of War Studies and is the blog’s editor for Europe.
When asked about the British exit this summer I usually cautioned both those who suggested that the UK will end up ultimately pushing the actual exit into the unforeseeable future forever, and those who suggested that the exit will happen soon without much delay. I did that because what seemed as the best strategy for the Brits was a degree of ambiguity, taking the time to prepare for the complex negotiations and define of the priorities, tacitly leaving the EU in a cloud of uncertainty. From the moment David Cameron announced his resignation, delegating the responsibility for the post-referendum fallout on whoever would become the next PM, and them hummed out of his office, this indeed looked like the path the UK was going to take. Uncertainty was the name of the game, while clarity was demanded by prominent EU figures such as Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt. It took a few months for the new government to act in any conclusive way and to give away hints of which strategy it was going to pursue. The result? Somewhat messy…
To those without particularly delicate knowledge of the inner working of the Conservative party, the sudden announcement by Theresa May about the definitive triggering of article 50 of the Treaty was a sudden shift in the rhetoric of the UK. A few weeks ago there weren’t evident signs of the government having agreed on a date. The lack of commitment was believed to have the potential to win some time within the UK and its preparation of the negotiating strategy, as well as to try give the UK’s political representation some space to try pursue negotiations before the actual process is sparked. Today, we of course haven’t got a date, but we have the next closest thing: the upper limit. Any unofficial negotiations that would precede the actual process triggered by the invocation of article 50 were repeatedly dismissed by the heads of the EU members states and by the representatives of the EU institutions, and so it is understandable that this isn’t a reason to prolong uncertainty. When it comes to coining a strategy for the negotiation and assessing priorities, the short period of time in which this is to be finalised is worrying for several reasons, though.
Is the UK ready?
The main question would be whether the UK is ready to start negotiating, or rather whether it will definitely be ready by March. So far, there is mixed evidence on this at best. The government refuses to give much away. Apparently that is in order not to undermine its position vis-a-vis its European counterparts, in fact that seems to be the pivotal point of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, whose ministry was allegedly still significantly understaffed some two months ago. When reporting on his preparatory works in September, Davis told the House of Commons that he’s “going to take the time to get it right”. I wonder how many observers expected that to mean until March 2017. Two things raise awareness in this respect: first, what appears as Davis trying to sell the “hard” outcome of the exit when he says things like there are countries outside the EU that do “a better job, frankly, of exporting to the single market than the UK does”; second, the recent “warning” Davis issued to the EU concerning their treatment of the City. When vaguely referring to the potential costs of depriving the City’s financial institutions of their right to continue to fulfil the role of Europe’s main financial centre Davis is not spelling out what his continental counterparts wouldn’t be aware of. The aim of the message is more political than informative and its tone seems to indicate something between a threat and a self-reassurance. In any case, it sounds confrontational and bullish and reminds me of one of the reasons why have some UK politicians been historically struggling when trying to get their point across at the EU level in the first place. One therefore wonders, is he the man for the job?
Immediately related is the issue of a seeming split of preferences among the individual cabinet ministers. Two figures are most prominent in this division on emphasis: the already mentioned David Davis and The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. The former operates with a rhetoric emphasising the need for the exercise of control over domestic matters, the latter rushes to the Wall Street when such rhetoric ignites a fall of the Pound and threatens the state gilts. Hammond reminded us that the Brits apparently did not vote to become poorer in the referendum. A conflict of approaches to the departure can also be illustrated on the indication of March as the starting point of the negotiations. If it was supposed to be an evidence of good will on behalf of the UK’s Prime Minister (since this ways the next EP elections would avoid the participation of British constituencies), the talk by Davis and the alike ultimately jeopardised the possible positive effects it could have had. As far as the domestic audience is concerned, Theresa May once again leaves it in a cloud of considerable uncertainty. What seems like a horror scenario, though, is the prospect of eventually scapegoating the Chancellor of the Exchequer who represents the voice of reason for those who are aware of the necessity of remaining as integrated in the economic spheres of the EU and the single market as possible. At the end of the day, the question is of course, who is pulling by the shorter end in this struggle for the exit strategy? That depends to a large extent on one seemingly dedicated woman who sees herself in midst of seizing her lifetime opportunity.
Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference has been talked about as the reference to a turnover, or “silent revolution” in orientation of Tory politics. It might also serve as a hint of May’s preferences when it comes down to the choice between the single market and the economic stability, or full control taken back home, put in simplistic terms. One way of analysing the references to the new more people-oriented government politics is through the lens of an adaptation to a post-referendum Britain where three factors play a decisive role. First, there is no longer an EU referendum to promise to secure extra votes in the next general election; second, the Labour party has arguably drifted from the centre to the left of the imaginary political spectrum, and even according to some of its own voters or supporters is not hegemonic in the sphere of the middle and lower-middle class households; third, now is the time that should reveal the extent to which the UKIP had been a one trick pony. If one of the drives of the support for UKIP and the Leave campaign was a feeling of general alienation and estrangement of a particular segment of the population, it might be a good idea to exploit that by reorienting the ideological basis of the Tories and filling in the gap after the crumbling UKIP. The remarks about citizens of nowhere, I suggest, are symptoms of this reorientation and as such are not quite painting the image of the global and open UK referred to before the referendum. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much creativity of imagination to envisage that such a setting would favour a stance at the negotiation table that is going to appease the demand for the most immediate and visible changes rather than the economically more stable and safe (at least when viewed through the lens of a certain outlook) partial adherence to a status quo that has been rejected in a referendum.
Will May be able to keep her word despite possible court decision?
One more point needs to be made regarding the indication of when Article 50 is supposed to be triggered. The government shows no intention to lay down its negotiation’s corner stones before the parliament agrees to them. I don’t wish to explain my position on whether that is right or wrong here, I simply want to point out to the fact that this approach has now been discussed at the High Court and is expected to be referred to the Supreme Court in December. After the hearing last week, the press reported on the surprisingly weak case of the side representing the government. This included references to expert legal opinion that was much more hesitant to rule out the potential ruling of the Supreme Court that parliamentary approval of the invocation of Article 50 is necessary. If that is the outcome of this legal battle over the Parliament’s role in the exit, May will have about three months between the final verdict and the end of March to get an agreement through the House of Commons. This prospect provokes natural scepticism and it seems more likely that May would lose her credibility over this as it would mean she cannot keep her word and does not exercise a sufficient degree of control over UK-EU divorce related matters.
To sum up
In the meanwhile, there seems to be little understanding for the endeavour of Theresa May amongst the 27, which has already met without Britain in Bratislava. Despite the indication of March 2017, the counterparts are about as clueless about what the UK’s position is as is the home parliament. General cluelessness might turn into common annoyance, common annoyance might turn into united hostility. In addition to that, prospects of division, a prospect of credibility loss, a prospect of vast economic costs, a prospect of an official overarching reorientation of the country (contrary to the claims about new open global UK) are basically the program of a government which has not been voted in. It looks like the most responsibility is now with the Conservative MPs that oppose the so called “Hard Brexit” and the prospects of general shambles outlined above: they should seriously consider the motion of no confidence if they aren’t already operating with it behind the closed doors. If I was a British voter and I had a conservative MP, that’s what I’d urge her or him to do. The prospect of new elections could be enough of a leverage if applied to a PM with an already questionable mandate, cautious about the necessity to secure the formerly pro-referendum votes that the Tories can expect to miss this time. It could immediately serve as the Parliament’s leverage way ahead of the probable Supreme Court hearing.
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