A complicated marriage and a jilted partner make for a messy divorce. The U.K. government has learned that lesson the hard way since kicking off the formal process of leaving the European Union more than six months ago. These negotiations were rough going to begin with, but now the government says they’re at risk of collapsing entirely.
The sticking points in the Brexit talks are as follows: The U.K. wants to begin work now on the trade deal it will have with the E.U. after it leaves, as well as the transition process it envisions for withdrawal. The E.U. insists that conversation can’t begin until they have reached agreement on how much the U.K. will pay the union when it leaves, the rights of E.U. citizens living in Britain and vice versa, and how to handle the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. E.U. leaders are also now demanding a guaranteed role for the European Court of Justice in post-Brexit Britain, which U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out.
May has been engaged in whirlwind diplomacy in the days leading up to the summit of E.U. leaders in Brussels this week. On Monday night, she had a dinner meeting in the Belgian capital with European president Jean-Claude Juncker, Brexit secretary David Davis, and the chief E.U. negotiator Michel Barnier. Hopefully, the food was better than the conversation, as the meeting produced only a feeble joint statement in which everyone agreed that negotiations “should accelerate over the months to come.” In other words, yes we are aware that this is going much too slowly, and no we don’t have a solution.
Now, the parties to these talks have until March 2019 to reach a deal, but that deal covers an awful lot of things, and to be at an impasse already does not bode well for the timely conclusion of these talks. May has threatened to walk away with no deal at all if the negotiators are unable to secure one that protects British interests, so every breakdown raises the specter of the U.K. leaving the union with no trade agreement in place with its largest trading partner.
That kind of uncertainty terrifies markets: The pound weakened up to 0.3 percent against the dollar on Monday after reports emerged that the talks were in jeopardy.
What’s bizarre about this spectacle is that it is all to execute a decision that neither May nor any other half-responsible British civil servant agreed with in the first place. The more real Brexit becomes, the more obviously it is a bad idea. The public hates the people who were behind it. It threatens to destabilize Northern Ireland. Industries such as food are facing serious labor shortages. London’s financial sector could lose 75,000 jobs to Paris, Dublin, or Frankfurt. Like most failures of government, a “no deal” divorce would hurt the poor the most.
May’s government is effectively holding the country hostage to a referendum their party badly bungled last year when they know the same question would not pass today. So here’s a crazy thought: Why not just give up on Brexit?
May is clearly desperate to make a deal, not least to avoid having to follow through on her threat to walk away without one. But she can’t get the deal she wants, because that deal involves inventing whole new forms of special treatment for Britain at a time when the E.U. is more inclined to punish it as a means of discouraging other would-be leavers.
If the talks end without a deal, that’s bad for the U.K. If the talks end with the best deal Whitehall can hope for at this point, it’s still bad for the U.K. The only outcome of this standoff that doesn’t make things measurably worse for the British people is if they agree to call the whole thing off and remain part of the E.U.
There is really no good reason not to do this. France and Germany are never going to let Brexit be cheap, easy, or comfortable for the U.K., but at the end of the day, they’d still prefer that it stay in the union. Europe’s leaders would rather not have to hold these negotiations at all than “win” them with a punitive divorce. The British public has soured on the idea of Brexit, or is at least unsure whether it’s a good idea. It is abundantly clear that the economic effects would be painful to disastrous. Plus, Brexit requires the negotiation and rewriting of countless laws and regulations, while not-Brexit requires no changes at all.
The only reason for May to keep up her unenthusiastic pursuit of Brexit is the fear that the backlash from the die-hard Brexiteers will shatter her Conservative Party, but it’s not clear that the Tories have much to lose at this point, having maxed out their political capital and credibility backing Brexit thus far. Would the cost of abandoning it really be higher for the prime minister than the price of going forward from her current position of weakness, then having the country suffer the consequences of her failure (or success)?
If political concerns are what’s keeping May from admitting that Brexit is a bad idea, Tony Blair’s former communications director Alastair Campbell suggests in an op-ed in The Guardian that she tell her party that the Brexit the public voted for “can’t be done” without doing tremendous damage to the country, and that she won’t be the one to inflict that damage. Perhaps that means holding another referendum to reverse the first one, and a national election in which, most likely, she and her party lose. He even writes his version of the speech for her.
May’s grip on the prime ministry has been tenuous anyway since the Tories unexpectedly lost their majority in Parliament earlier this year. Her government is not long for this world, and reversing course on Brexit would be a worthwhile way to put it out of its misery. May will likely lose her job within the next year either way, but she can also save her legacy if she wants to.