As Brexit Talks Begin, the U.K. Has Few Cards to Play

May — or may not. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If some enterprising British historian ever writes a book on the most devastating own goals in the history of U.K. politics, the tale of Brexit and the Conservative Party will be a fitting topic for Chapter One. What began with former Prime Minister David Cameron calling a referendum he fully expected to fail and having to resign in disgrace when it passed has continued with his successor Theresa May calling an election she fully expected to win but lost. Now her government (to the extent that she even has one) proceeds to Brexit negotiations neither strong nor stable, holding almost no bargaining chips and little goodwill from either the U.K. public or the European Union.

The negotiations kicked off in Brussels on Monday with the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier making it clear that the U.K. is in no position to dictate terms, and that the framework of the divorce (including, most pressingly, the rights of expatriates) would have to be addressed before opening the subject of Britain’s future trade relationship with the union. The U.K. had hoped to discuss both at once, from the start. In his statement after the first day of talks had concluded, Barnier took a firm yet congenial tone, but struck a passive-aggressive note when he pointed out that they were all there to implement “the decision taken by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and unravel 43 years of patiently-built relations.” Zing.

U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis’s job is far from enviable. Both parties to these negotiations have something to lose if the talks go south, but Britain is decidedly the weaker party — and the party leading Britain is weaker still. Shortly after the unexpected results of this month’s snap general election were announced, May said the Tories, which had lost their majority in Parliament, would form a government in coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party of religious conservatives that has devoted its energies to keeping same-sex marriage and abortion illegal in their province.

Now, however, the DUP is warning that its support for May’s leadership “can’t be taken for granted.” In other words, we will sign a deal to keep Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (whom they despise for his past ties to the IRA) out of power, but don’t expect us to back all of your policies — at least not without getting something in return. As the New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush puts it: “Unlike the Conservative government, they know how to negotiate.” So far, that has primarily meant demanding £2 billion in health care and infrastructure investments in Northern Ireland.

The DUP is pro-Brexit, but has certain demands in that regard, and may play hardball with the Tories there as well. If Davis returns to Brussels and informs Barnier that he needs an Irish border that’s soft in one direction and hard in the other — or soft to labor but hard to goods, or soft to some people but not others — or else his government will fall, he will be laughed straight out of the room.

Indeed, the competing desires of the Tories’ exceedingly fragile coalition are the fundamental reason why Davis is in an impossible position. There is simply no deal imaginable that would be acceptable to Brussels, the U.K.’s business community, and the working-class Britons who voted Leave in a desperate effort to get their jobs back from the foreigners who stole them (or so they were told by the Daily Mail). The E.U. is unlikely to let the U.K. have full access to its market without London committing to the free movement of people, and those working-class voters are even less likely to be satisfied with a Brexit that doesn’t fulfill May’s promises to drastically reduce immigration.

Many of those voters thought the effect of their Leave vote would be to kick out the roughly 3 million E.U. citizens already living and working in Britain. That was never likely to happen, as doing so would be catastrophic for the U.K.’s labor market, including the service sector, construction, agriculture, and the NHS — not to mention the logistical and diplomatic nightmares of deporting several million people. On Thursday, May told European leaders that the vast majority of these Europeans would be grandfathered into permanent residency status, but signaled some flexibility as to when the cut-off date for eligibility would be for recent arrivals — her only real bargaining chip thus far.

Her policy agenda, outlined in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, also left out a sizable chunk of the Tories’ election manifesto, illustrating the number of promises May has made to voters that at this point she knows she can’t keep. The prime minister faces the no-win choice of giving her base what it wants at the cost of impoverishing the country, or taking the only deal the E.U. will realistically offer and alienating the Conservatives’ Eurosceptic constituents, possibly for good.

Ironically, her only hope at this point lives in Brussels. The European Council is not eager to give an inch in these talks, and may be tempted to ensure that Brexit is so painful for the U.K. that no other member state dares to try it. Yet the mood at the European Council summit this week was optimistic about the state of the union and the start of the Brexit talks, with Council President Donald Tusk even tossing around the idea that the U.K. might decide to stay in the E.U. after all.

Perhaps Barnier will throw Britain’s hapless, flailing Conservatives enough rope to pull themselves out of their mess, but at this point, they seem more likely than not to hang themselves with it.

As Brexit Talks Begin, the U.K. Has Few Cards to Play