The Brexit saga is looking more and more like an ancient parable about the perils of hubris; a dyspeptic satire of postimperial delusions, and/or this:
On Friday, the United Kingdom and European Union announced a “breakthrough” in their divorce proceedings. The British pound soared — and then fell seconds later, as the reality of the deal came into view.
Prime Minister Theresa May had promised to take a hard line with the EU. “No deal is a better than a bad deal,” she roared. Britain would insist on regaining control over its borders — and retaining privileged access to the European common market. It would pay no ransom to Brussels for its independence, nor outsource an ounce of sovereignty to EU bureaucrats and courts. Brexit meant Brexit — and May would ensure that that meant something good.
It now appears that staking all her political credibility on the outcome of negotiations in which she had virtually no leverage might have been a bad bet.
The deal inked Friday covers the least difficult issues in Britain’s divorce settlement. It is a collection of terms that the EU imposed on the U.K. as the price of beginning discussions over a post-Brexit trade agreement. And it strongly suggests that May has decided, on second thought, that a bad deal is actually better than no deal.
Britain was always going to be outmatched in these negotiations. Europe has a deep interest in ensuring that no other EU nation sees Brexit as a model worth emulating. Furthermore, many countries on the continent stand to benefit from a weakened London — Amsterdam would love to be the new financial center of Europe.
But the fact that the Tories’ slim majority now rests on an alliance with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) weakened May’s hand even further. The DUP wants to maintain a seamless relationship with the rest of the U.K. But the Good Friday Agreement — which secured peace between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland — rests on an open border between those two entities. This presents a massive problem. The Republic of Ireland is an EU member, bound by all its rules and regulations. Post-Brexit, Northern Ireland will cease to be. But it’s not clear how two different sets of rules could govern economic activity on the island unless a hard border is reestablished.
The agreement reached Friday punts on this question — but first, it stipulates that if no workable fix is found, Britain will forfeit sovereignty over its trade policy. “In the absence of agreed solutions,” the deal reads, “the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union.”
To keep Ireland united, Northern Ireland will need keep its regulations in alignment with the EU — and to keep Northern Ireland in a seamless relationship with the U.K., all of Britain will need remain in compliance with those regulations, too.
In other words: Unless May finds a solution to the Good Friday problem, Brexit will leave the U.K. subject to economic rules from Brussels — only now, as a nonmember of the EU, London will have no direct say over what those rules are.
The Guardian’s Dan Roberts spells out the implications of this concession for May’s leverage in upcoming trade talks:
Much will be made of the “in the absence of agreed solutions” caveat, yet what it means in practice is that the UK hopes to flesh out this pledge through a wider free trade agreement with the EU. If the other 27 members were reluctant to allow any wriggle room in the first phase of talks, they are even less likely to budge now that this principle is established as a back-stop.
Meanwhile, Britain agreed to pay its full EU budget commitments in 2019 and 2020 (even though it is scheduled to exit the union in March 2019), and to fork over its portion of the EU’s outstanding bills and liabilities. The total cost of these concessions has been estimated at between $53 billion and $65 billion dollars — more than double May’s initial offer. In exchange for Britain accepting this much higher divorce payment, the EU has agreed to let the U.K. pay the bill in installments, rather than as a lump sum. This might be more politically palatable, but it also ensures that British taxpayers will be mailing cash to Brussels for decades to come.
The preliminary deal does protect the legal status of 1 million British citizens living in the EU — and 3.5 million EU citizens in the U.K. But, contrary to the wishes of hard-line Brexiteers, the agreement aims to safeguard the rights of EU citizens in Britain by giving the European Court of Justice oversight of the U.K. court system for eight years after Brexit. The ECJ’s role in Britain has long been seen as epitomizing the U.K.’s lost sovereignty.
Ultimately, the most damning part of Theresa May’s “breakthrough” may be this: She (almost certainly) could have had this deal months ago. May dragged out negotiations for eight months, only to accept virtually all of the EU’s conditions. Now, she’s left herself with less than a year to negotiate a sweeping free-trade agreement with the EU. And unless she is somehow able to win better terms in those (even more contentious) negotiations — where she will enjoy even less leverage than she has thus far — the British people will have subjected themselves to a historic decline in living standards, for the sake of gaining less sovereignty over their nation’s trading regulations, a heightened risk of a new round of troubles in Ireland, a strengthened independence movement in Scotland, and maybe, if they’re lucky, the freedom to modestly restrict immigration into the U.K.
Brexit means Brexit — and/or an own goal massive enough to permit an American in the Trump era to (momentarily) indulge a smug sense of patriotic superiority.