The hard Brexit that many Britons had hoped for, and others had feared, has materialised in British Prime Minister Theresa May's declaration that her country will not be a part of the European Union's (EU) single market when it leaves the EU. The finality of that separation is implicit in the confirmation by Mrs May that her government's top priority is to restore control of immigration to Britain from Europe, and to remove the powers of the European Court of Justice over British citizens. Since access to the single market is conditional on these two key elements, Mrs May's strategy of exit from the EU is a definitive one. Indeed, pre-empting the possibility of the EU's remaining members imposing punitive conditions on Britain for its residual links with the union, she made it clear that no deal would be better than a bad deal for London.
There is a two-year timeframe for exit negotiations once the mechanism for separation is triggered, and British parliamentarians must approve any divorce deal. These factors make for vigorous and, in fact, acrimonious political debate in Britain in the lead-up to Brexit. However, Mrs May has laid down the parameters within which she visualises the break to take place. Its clarity is welcome, if only because it will concentrate the minds of supporters and opponents alike on how to make the most of a reality that will be there to stay, for both Britain and the EU.
For the EU, the challenge would be to prevent the onset of Britain's eventual departure from precipitating other breakaways. Centrifugal forces exist in many European countries. They include France which, along with Germany, was one of the initiators of the contemporary European project and remains one of its two anchors today. A hard Brexit, which nevertheless allowed Britain to retain substantial benefits of European integration outside the EU framework, would embolden Eurosceptic forces in France and elsewhere. What is more important than Brexit will be the EU's ability to renew itself into a credible institution, and the only one, that can guarantee the economic and cultural integrity of Europe.
As for Britain, leaving the EU will not deprive it of its indigenous strengths. These range from its free market instincts and its military prowess, to the jealously guarded autonomy of its legal institutions and the global standing of its best universities. No matter how it refashions its relations with the rump EU, Britain can revitalise its historical links with the Commonwealth. It might even be the case that a retreat from Europe would bring the rest of the world into sharper diplomatic focus in Britain. The special relationship with the United States, too, would sustain British interests outside the unifying, but also limiting, confines of European-American relations. International space exists for British exceptionalism to thrive.