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Brexit without Exit

Brexit without Exit

The pressure on David Cameron to force an exit from the European Union increased as the economic situation in the UK worsened. The debt crisis of 2008 forced intense budget constraints which, combined with drastic changes in the labor market due to disruptive technological change, allowed for the propagation of populist political proposals that sought to alleviate growing inequality. During the 2015-16 Middle East refugee crisis, nationalist politicians recuperated old nativist ideas in order to convince a majority of Britons that they would be better off outside the EU. A full recovery of their national sovereignty was, according to them, the solution to their problems. Independence would bring back economic resources and allow them to protect their frontiers more effectively from the new scapegoat: foreigners.

Prime Minister Theresa May did not seem to share this exclusionary approach, but was aware that a majority of conservative voters did. If she wanted to remain in office, she had to favour Brexitism, even though she considered it a serious mistake. In an ideal scenario, she would have chosen “cherry picking”, accepting only the advantages of belonging to the single market, and rejecting elements such as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or the partial lack of political authority over economic policy and immigration. But given the European Union has far greater negotiating strength, pragmatism meant giving up most claims and end up accepting the terms that will harm the UK less. Gone are therefore her refusals to talk about the divorce bill, or her willingness to close the borders and avoid European regulation. And gone is also her claim to negotiate “between equals”: she has fully accepted the timetable and all deadlines set by Michel Barnier.

May could have tried to explain to her fellow citizens that the benefits obtained by remaining in the European Union far exceed the disadvantages, but chose to mimic the Eurosceptic faction and played “no agreement is better than a bad agreement”. The first option would have allowed her to be open and coherent now, but it is also true that most of her cabinet seems to have just landed in harsh reality and are giving her the support that, after the outcome of this pre-agreement, many Eurosceptics would have denied her. Having given up so much in her demands could have led to an immediate public rejection by several cabinet members, but they all have closed ranks and congratulated her on the result. “We used to be hard brexiters, but are aware now that the softer the Brexit, the less it will hurt our country“.

So aside from accepting the invoice of at least 40,000 million euros and guaranteeing the rights of the non-British citizens of the EU living in the UK, the concessions made in relation to the Irish border show a constructive predisposition, very much opposed to her initial official stance. Because an invisible border in Ireland plus the alignment with the European regulatory environment implies that the UK is aware that free trade with its neighbors benefits all involved to the point that it is worthwhile to continue yielding regulatory authority, even if it implies no longer participating in its elaboration process.

And this is the new perspective for the second round of talks. A UK that accepts an entry into the European single market through its only land border can hardly be reconciled with a rejection of that market at other borders. Maintaining some red lines and preventing the free movement of people at other points of entry would be a tremendous inconsistency. And so a treaty similar to the one signed with Canada, which could limit British service exports, does not seem to fit with the new spirit of the pre-agreement just reached. The attitude shown by May in recent weeks allows to hope for a free trade agreement that also includes people and equates to remaining in the single market, even if it is finally dressed up in the clothes of the Swiss treaties and prohibits access to foreigners in certain situations. This way, Theresa May will be able to continue with the Eurosceptic face it offers internally, while at the same time she saves British trade.

Manuel López-Linares is author of Pax Americana.

@mlopezlinares

 SOURCE:  Expansión – print edition – Spain’s leading business newspaper, on december 13, 2017