You Brexit, You Buy It

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium

However much both sides want to behave like grown-ups, the arguments over withdrawal soon turn into squabbles.

November-December 2017

The British tabloids and some Tories were quick to hit the jingo button in response. The Sun, diplomatic as ever, produced a pullout centerfold poster: “Hands Off Our Rock.” The former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard was wheeled onto Sunday television, where he suggested that Theresa May would be willing to go to war to protect Gibraltar, just as Margaret Thatcher had done for the Falklands.

It was all laughably over the top. Nevertheless, the fallout over Gibraltar proved just how thorny the process of withdrawing from the EU will be. Every minor dispute could be blown into a casus belli. Neither side wants to fight, of course, but the way the word “war” quickly entered the political debate served as a reminder that, for all its problems, the EU has helped guarantee peace since the Second World War.

Any common ground between Brexit Britain and the EU looks vanishingly small. On the Brexit side, everybody agrees that May must be willing to walk away from the negotiating table if the EU proves too obstreperous. That would mean falling back on WTO rules and tariffs for the trade of goods between Europe and Britain—and hoping for the best on the transfer of services, immigration and the manifold issues of legal jurisdiction. Economists and futurologists disagree wildly on what the “WTO option” could mean for Britain, but it seems likely to cause market jitters in the short term.

On the EU side, the twenty-seven other member countries seem resolved to show unity against Britain’s withdrawal. No senior European representatives will explicitly say they want to punish Britain pour decourager les autres. That has to be the EU position, however. The EU, still suffering its own political and economic crisis as a result of the 2008 crash, simply cannot afford to let Britain leave on good terms. To do so would undermine what it calls the “integrity of the union.” In order to protect what they see as Europe’s long-term interest, plenty of Brussels mandarins would be willing to accept the economic pain of freezing Britain out.

According to a detailed report by the Centre for European Reform, there are

three possible outcomes of the Brexit talks: a separation agreement plus an accord on future relations including an FTA; a separation agreement but no deal on future relations, so that Britain has to rely on WTO rules; and neither a separation agreement nor a deal on future relations, so that Britain faces legal chaos and has to rely on WTO rules.

Paralyzing legal complexity seems inevitable. In July, the government put forward its Great Repeal Bill, to assert the supremacy of British law over European law in the future. The bill proposes to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom, and to transfer all EU law into the UK legal system, so that the government can then “amend, repeal and improve” each law as is necessary. If that sounds simple, it shouldn’t: the relationship between EU law and British law is deeply confused and confusing. It is the source of much of the resentment towards EU, but unpicking what law applies where will be, as a report by the House of Commons concluded, “one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK.” Lawyers will have a field day, and that means taxpayers will have to pay. It’s also unclear how the Repeal Bill can be passed through the Commons while the politics of Brexit are so up in the air.

At present, with all eyes on May, the growing consensus, even among some Leave supporters, is that chaos beckons. The Leave campaign promised a bonfire of EU “red tape”—to destroy those continental bureaucratic impediments long blamed holding Britain back. Now, however, businesses are dreading the “bureaucracy bombshell” Brexit is meant to bring.

MAY IS a much weaker figure than she was before the election. She and her team chose to interpret Brexit not just as a vote against Brussels, but as an opportunity to move politics away from the globalism of former prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron. Earlier this year, May appeared to be carving out a new “third way”—not between Left and Right, but between nationalism and internationalism; between the ugly chauvinism of Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, and the economic liberalism that has dominated Tory politics for most May’s career. May herself was not afraid to stand up for patriotism: she got a cold reception from financial and political elites when she told them, repeatedly, “If believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” But her advisers stressed that she wanted to challenge free-market capitalism to save itself. She talked of “rebalancing the economy” to better serve the north of England, which distressed let-the-market-rip Brexiteers. Mayism then could be seen as an Anglican version of America First, or Brexit as Trumpism lite. The prime minister’s manifesto included proposals to put workers on company boards and levy on companies who hired foreign workers.

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