HUGO YOUNG, an author, alighted on Hobbesian metaphors to describe Britain’s negotiations, in the early 1970s, to join the then European Economic Community. But if accession was “nasty”, “occasionally brutish” and “indisputably long”, leaving the club may prove harder still. Last week Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, praised the European Union effusively even as she triggered the process to leave it, beginning two years of withdrawal negotiations. But Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, captured the mood better, predicting “difficult, complex and sometimes even confrontational” talks.This week’s contretemps over Gibraltar was a depressing reminder that the strain of British jingoism unearthed by the vote to leave the EU last June remains alive. It will no doubt find fresh
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HUGO YOUNG, an author, alighted on Hobbesian metaphors to describe Britain’s negotiations, in the early 1970s, to join the then European Economic Community. But if accession was “nasty”, “occasionally brutish” and “indisputably long”, leaving the club may prove harder still. Last week Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, praised the European Union effusively even as she triggered the process to leave it, beginning two years of withdrawal negotiations. But Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, captured the mood better, predicting “difficult, complex and sometimes even confrontational” talks.
This week’s contretemps over Gibraltar was a depressing reminder that the strain of British jingoism unearthed by the vote to leave the EU last June remains alive. It will no doubt find fresh modes of expression as the Brexit talks unfold (see article). Expect other battles, too: the debate over Britain’s outstanding financial obligations to the EU seems almost guaranteed to end in tears. But none of this should obscure the broader trajectory of the past few weeks. Having marched her troops to the top of Mount Brexit since the referendum, Mrs May has begun quietly trotting them back down again.
European negotiators note that a mood of realism has slowly settled on London as the remorseless logic of Brexit has taken hold. Mrs May’s insistence on imposing immigration controls after Brexit, for example, led inexorably to her acceptance that Britain would have to quit the EU’s single market and lose any say in making its laws. That has broadly neutralised an issue some had thought might be central to the negotiations. “We don’t want to write their [migration] rules,” says one Eurocrat. The draft negotiating guidelines circulated by Mr Tusk to Europe’s capitals last week make only passing mention of the single market’s “four freedoms”, and then simply to welcome Mrs May’s acknowledgment that they are not available à la carte.
Reality has left other toothmarks. Gone are the empty threats to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven should the EU fail to offer satisfactory divorce terms. Mrs May now accepts that a trade deal with the EU cannot enter into force before Britain leaves (even if she clings to the fantasy that its full details may be worked out in advance). That means some sort of bridging arrangement will be needed, perhaps lasting two or three years, during which Mrs May has hinted that Britain could accept the rules of the single market, including the free movement of EU workers.
This massacre of sacred cows has reassured Europe. Britain may have spent the nine months since the referendum strutting about and making a fool of itself. But better to get the peacocking out of the way before the actual negotiations open. EU officials are still preparing for a complete breakdown in talks, and for Britain to crash out of the EU in two years without a deal. But as they observe British rhetoric yielding to reality, some now proclaim themselves a little more optimistic.
Indeed, talk to negotiators in Brussels, Berlin or Paris—still notably united—and you find concerns not so much about British perfidy or delusion, but over its readiness to conduct what David Davis, the Brexit minister, calls “the most complicated negotiation of modern times”. Take the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa. Here, there is no reason for a row: both sides want to minimise disruption for their immigrants. But the issue is extremely complex, from pension rules to the rights of third-country spouses to the enforceability of whatever rules are agreed on. One EU negotiator says that in normal times it would take a decade to untangle the threads. Work your way down the Brexit to-do list, and two years looks dauntingly brief.
Hardest of all will be working out how to marry Britain’s demands for sovereignty with its trading needs. On this, the Europeans fear, the penny has not yet dropped in London. Mrs May now calls for a “deep and special partnership” with the EU. That implies a trade relationship that extends beyond goods to the services Britain likes to export, particularly the financial sort, and a means of ensuring that its standards and rules do not deviate from Europe’s. The deeper the trade deal, therefore, the more Britain must play by the EU’s rulebook and, perhaps, accept the de facto supervision of its courts.
You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
The Europeans also stand to lose from a shallow trade deal. Their hope is that Britain will seek to converge with EU rules once the regulatory trade-offs become apparent. Should the talks proceed relatively smoothly, in time the two sides may find themselves building, law by law, institution by institution, a regime not dissimilar from the one they are preparing to dismantle. There are signs of this already. It is an “absurd” exercise, says an EU official. “We are reinventing many of the instruments we already have.”
But Eurocrats also worry that a sensible posture abroad may force Mrs May into a showdown with hardliners at home. For now, she is riding high; her stout conversion to the Brexit cause (and the feebleness of her political foes) leaves her with plenty of political capital. But is she prepared to enter the next election, in 2020, accepting free movement from the EU, paying large sums into its budget and operating under the purview of its courts? Can she negotiate and defend a final deal that preserves so much of what the Leave campaign fought to destroy?
Perhaps she can: ersatz sovereignty can be repackaged as the real thing, and immigration may decline helpfully as the EU economy recovers. The prime minister can argue that although Brexit will lose Britain any say over the rules that govern its commerce with the EU, it wins Britain the right to renegotiate its trade with the rest of the world. It is hard for Europeans to judge whether this will pacify the Brexiteers. Then again, it has always been hard for Europeans to see why Britain’s tortured attitude towards the EU should be their problem to solve.