Global Affairs

Brexit: Theresa May can still regain initiative

Criticism of the British PM's plan is overblown despite some early slip-ups

LONDON • Spare a thought for British Prime Minister Theresa May. She supported her country's continued membership of the European Union (EU), only to be landed with the unenviable task of negotiating Britain's departure from the organisation.

She promised to handle these divorce negotiations with speed and vision, only to be confronted now with the embarrassing resignation of her chief diplomatic representative to the EU, who left exasperated by her government's alleged "muddled thinking". And the blows just keep coming: The latest edition of The Economist - required reading for Britain's political elite - dismisses the British premier as "Theresa Maybe", an indecisive leader, drifting through times when critical decisions are needed.

There is no question that Mrs May's first few months in office were plagued by policy missteps and errors. But Britain's negotiating position with the EU, although grave, is nowhere near as hopeless as commentators now allege. The British Prime Minister can still regain the initiative, although that will require her to impose her vision on Britain's separation from Europe.

No one has ever doubted that the Brexit process will be bureaucratically difficult. Still, few officials and politicians in London are truly aware of just how mind-bogglingly complicated the process will actually be. A country joining the EU today would have to sign up to its entire body of laws, rules and regulations, the so-called acquis communautaire (most EU institutional concepts have French language names which are virtually untranslatable), extending to around 108,000 pages. Britain will now have to unravel the same amount of legislation.

Furthermore, most of this has to be done within a narrow time window of two years, as required by existing European treaties. And, while dismantling some obligations to the EU, Britain will also have to negotiate new ones at the same time, both with Europe and the world. All politicians in London accept that their island-state cannot survive without free trade agreements with its key partners.


Given the sheer complexity of the issues, it is churlish to accuse the Theresa May government of being "in disarray" a mere six months after a referendum whose outcome nobody predicted and for which no preparations were made.

Nor is it correct to accuse Mrs May - as Sir Ivan Rogers, her resigning ambassador to the EU, has done last week - of ignoring the advice of civil servants. The key issue which led to the ambassador's resignation was the fact that the Prime Minister rejected his advice, which was that Britain should delay announcing the start of the negotiations for as long as possible; instead Mrs May announced that she would trigger the talks by March.

The ambassador's argument ignored the fact that governments throughout Europe were demanding that Britain start the negotiations even earlier. It is silly to assume that, having voted to leave the EU, the Brits should have simply sat on the problem for years, until they were ready to negotiate with the rest of Europe. The ambassador was making a perfectly valid technical argument, as civil servants are expected to do; Mrs May, as his political master, was perfectly correct in rejecting it.

Mrs May's real problem is that she is running a Cabinet and a country broadly divided between ideologues, those who may be termed romantics and those who are still in denial about what has happened.

The ideologues want out of the EU immediately, regardless of the consequences. They don't care about the intricacies of trade negotiations; what they demand is the instant restoration of complete British sovereignty and the sealing of borders to migrants.

Meanwhile, the romantics believe that Britain can cherry-pick the EU obligations it wants to keep, discard those it doesn't like and still persuade nations that, just like during the 19th century, they need Britain more than Britain needs the world.

And then, there are the pro-Europeans who still refuse to accept that their country would ever leave the EU and who simply take pleasure in pointing out only the difficulties of Brexit.

Mrs May's initial statement that "Brexit means Brexit", was intentionally crafted to please everyone: It was definite enough to reassure ideologues, vague enough to please romantics and brief enough to remind those still in denial that the electorate's decision to leave the EU was final.


Mrs May's problem is not only that her slogan is now derided as meaningless, but also the fact that she has tilted too much towards the ideologues, by promising them that in the Brexit negotiations, she will prioritise controlling immigration over free trade.

To a certain extent, this was inevitable: The careers of three of Mrs May's predecessors as Conservative prime ministers - Lady Margaret Thatcher, Mr John Major and Mr David Cameron - were destroyed by the anti-Europeans within the party, and Mrs May did not want to become the fourth leader to suffer a similar fate.

But her tilt towards the ideologues proved disastrous for Britain's negotiating stance, and needs to be abandoned. In a major policy speech planned for the second half of this month, Mrs May plans to unveil proposals for a new work permit system, thereby alleviating fears that Britain will close its doors to immigration after leaving the EU.

She will also announce a number of other measures intended to reassure Britain's pro-Europeans that not all is lost.

So, although Mrs May has clearly been wrong-footed, she can also recover from her slip-ups. Britain possesses one of the most disciplined and well-trained civil service in the industrialised world. If the country's civil servants were able to dismantle an entire empire and give independence to tens of nations around the world in, essentially, one decade, they should also be able to deal with Brexit.

Two years will almost certainly not be sufficient for concluding the EU talks. But, although the EU strenuously denies this, an interim deal should be perfectly possible, giving both sides more time.

Immigration will remain a thorny issue. However, here too there are plenty of imaginative solutions. One compromise privately being discussed at the moment is to allow EU citizens to continue coming relatively unhindered, provided they have already secured a job offer in Britain, rather than arrive there first and then look for a job, as is the case currently.

And, although the mood between the EU and Britain is frosty at the moment, this will change when the talks start. The EU's 27 member states are hardly united on this topic: The Western Europeans are more interested in maintaining their Union's cohesion at Britain's expense, while the East Europeans are keener on harnessing Britain's military power for their protection. The EU's adamant current refusal to talk to the British before the negotiations formally begin is an admission of the nervousness within the organisation about how a consensus could be maintained.


But the most important reason why the EU and Britain can no longer contemplate a messy divorce is provided by the name of one person: Mr Donald Trump. Although he has yet to take office, the President-elect has already provided plenty of indications that he has no interest in maintaining America's security umbrella over Europe. Mr Trump has spent most of his time hinting at plans to forge a new friendship with Russia, while saying absolutely nothing about what he will do to nurture existing alliances with the Europeans.

Mrs May has dispatched her most trusted advisers to the United States in a desperate behind-the-scenes effort to arrange an early summit with Mr Trump. This now looks likely to take place next month and will, no doubt, be touted as a great accomplishment in London.

Yet, the British know that their special alliance with the US is, at best, moribund. And so do the rest of the Europeans, who will increasingly feel that clinging to each other is their only feasible alternative. That means a more united EU, but it could also mean a Europe which adopts a more constructive approach to the Brexit negotiations.

Mrs May's biggest task now is to try to limit the damage Brexit will inflict on both her country and on Europe, by acting quickly and decisively. For, by a curious twist of history, the election of Mr Trump serves as a timely reminder of why EU and Britain now need each other more than ever.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'Brexit: Theresa May can still regain initiative'. Print Edition | Subscribe