May wins the battle, but not the war

How interesting it would have been last Friday to be a fly on the wall and listen in on the meeting of the British cabinet in the countryside in Chequers. Tempers were no doubt heated, but at the end of the day the Prime Minister succeeded in emerging victorious. She managed to get support for her proposal in the face of stiff opposition from the Brexit hardliners. Her version hinges on a free-trade agreement with the EU in which the Brits accept EU product standards and in return the EU ceases to insist on the necessity of border controls. Only a few days on and May’s plan is already under fire: Brexit advocates in Great Britain feel betrayed and the response in the EU has also been noticeably muted. May will continue, in other words, to have to wage war on two fronts. On the domestic front she first of all has to clear up the shambles left behind by the resignation of her Brexit Minister David Davis and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. There is already speculation that the Prime Minister may now fall victim to an internal party coup. It remains to be seen whether the Brexit hardliners have the guts to challenge May directly, especially as the meeting of the parliamentary party last night showed that the Prime Minister still enjoys broad support within the Conservative Party. On the assumption that May’s government survives this renewed domestic crisis, she will then have to square up to the challenge of persuading the EU to accept her plans. The initial response from Brussels was decidedly restrained. Voices have already been heard saying that the British government is once again merely trying to pick the cherries from the EU cake. In actual fact, negotiations on a soft Brexit are extremely complicated from the EU viewpoint. While a hard Brexit would allow the EU to draw a clear line, the soft Brexit version can swiftly be accused of having made things too easy for the Brits. In the worst case, according to the concern in Brussels, an “EU-light” deal would kindle the interest of other member states in a similar arrangement. It is therefore only understandable that Michel Barnier does not wish to comment any further on the British proposals until the White Paper has been published (release is scheduled for Thursday) and more details of May’s plans are known. The most probable bone of contention will be freedom of movement being rescinded with a simultaneous elimination of any (trade) border controls between the EU and Great Britain. The government in Westminster wants to achieve this by pegging a free-trade agreement with the EU to the promise that it will accept all EU product standards. Quite apart from the fact that this will be a very bitter pill for the Brits to swallow, there are justified doubts whether the EU will be willing to rely on a British promise in this regard. Moreover, the EU will seek to avoid even a shadow of doubt arising over the inseparability of the freedom of movement and trade. Should the opinion gain sway in Brussels that the plan May is proposing grants the British a special status, then the negotiating team from London may once again find itself coming up against a brick wall.

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