Imagine the look on a divorce lawyer’s face if you went to into his office and narrated the facts of Brexit: a 40 year relationship is ending; the couple’s vast finances are almost inextricably intermeshed and they have a long and inglorious history of being violent towards each other. Worst of all, despite the bitterness of the separation, they intend to continue living next door to each other.
The divorce lawyer would doubtless be conflicted: on the one hand, dollar signs would be lighting up in his eyes (and make no mistake, in spite of the overwhelming opposition of the profession towards Brexit, lawyers still stand to do pretty well out of it), but on the other, this particular break up is going to play out like a Jeremy Kyle highlights reel. The comments of Jean-Claude Junker about his meeting with the Prime Minister earlier this week should therefore be given their proper context: it was not an isolated set-to, but just one episode of public mudslinging in what is destined to become a long-drawn, bitter and protracted affair.
It is hardly surprising that Theresa May chose when she did to call a snap election: having spent the past year consolidating her position within the Tory party, she has now moved to consolidate her position within Parliament as well. The window of opportunity for her to do this will slam shut once the whole Freudian car crash of the Brexit divorce becomes apparent. Concessions, humiliations, climb downs and retractions. All four horsepeople of the political apocalypse lie in wait for the PM during the course of the next 24 months.
But why would anybody think it would be anything different? Where did all this false confidence that Britain would somehow hold the whip hand in negotiations come from?
Britain enters these negotiations in a weak position. An increased Tory majority will enhance, rather than alleviate, that weakness: May’s need to accommodate the party’s emboldened Eurosceptics has forced her onto a “hard Brexit” mantle. In consequence, she has already had to publically eliminate issues such as the jurisdiction of the ECJ and free movement of people as chips in her negotiation. May will therefore have to approach the negotiations with next to nothing to barter with, having already shown her entire hand. The Europeans, by contrast, have taken nothing off the table and everything is in play. Even before one considers the gulf in relative economic and financial clout between the UK and EU27 (which is vast), the EU27 already have a position of strength.
A slimmer majority would allow May to put the case for a softer Brexit to her party with greater urgency: accepting a Brexit with strings attached would be more palatable where the only alternative was no Brexit at all. The ghosts of elections past still haunt the Tories: the party was routed at the ballot box under successive Eurosceptic leaders in the 2000s. The Parliamentary party, spooked by the potential of a return to the opposition benches, will likely fall in line.
Will there be a deal favourable to the UK without concessions? Of course not. By remaining outwith the jurisdiction of the ECJ, British companies will gain a massive competitive advantage over the EU27 (all at the expense of British workers). It simply would not make sense for the remaining Member States to concede that competitive advantage while receiving nothing in return.
Contrary to popular tabloid myth, the EU is not needlessly bureaucratic just for bureaucracy’s sake: the social dimension added to European law from the late 1970s until the early 1990s served a purpose. It was there to harmonise employment laws in order to create a level playing field between the Member States participating in the common market. For the EU27 countries to allow Britain unbridled access to the market without forcing the companies exporting to that market to accept the same regulatory conditions as everyone else would be a huge own goal.
The reluctance of EU27 to grant Britain a favourable trade deal will calcify with an increased Tory majority: the party is avowedly neoliberal. The Britain they envision coming into being after Brexit is a kind of corporate wet dream of low tax, low regulation and non-existent workers’ rights. All these policies would again increase the UK’s competitive advantage over the EU27 countries and, again, it would be abject madness to imagine EU27 negotiators are going to even countenance any form of deal that allows British companies to drive home that advantage.
All in all, the position is extremely delicate, but these problems are of the British electorate’s own making. The remedy may also be in their hands: a Labour Prime Minister taking office next month – whether after outright win or in coalition with the SNP, will allow a fresh, more conciliative approach to the Brexit negotiations. Leaving the possibility of a soft Brexit still open will allow the British negotiators more room to get a better deal than if the country goes in with the reckless intransigence that a Tory party eventually will have.
Blog by Michael Briggs