Against a plain background in a former school for paramilitary police, next to a church famous for denouncing Galileo’s refutation of the idea that the sun moved around the Earth, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a foreign policy speech Friday that revolved around divisions within her own Cabinet.
Facing demands to side with the pragmatists — who favor what is often referred to as a soft Brexit — or the ideologues in her Cabinet, she opted to split the difference.
The result: a significant difference in the tone of the UK’s public statements about Brexit to date, but very little in substance.
On the three issues upon which the European Union wants to see “sufficient progress” before moving discussions to the future relationship — EU citizens’ rights, the EU budget and the Irish border — there was progress only on the budget.
Rumors that had spread in advance of May’s speech about the death of a so-called hard Brexit proved greatly exaggerated. Despite her loss of authority in an election of her own choosing, and increased pressure from business and her own finance minister, May repeated her position that Britain was to leave the single market and the customs union.
Management of her own country’s politics demanded nothing less: The questions asked by the British after the speech focused on whether she had sold “leave” voters down the river, not whether she would wreck the economy by leaving the single market and customs union by 2021.
What was missing was serious attention to the demands made by the EU. With the exception of the budget — May made what should have been the obvious admission that the UK would pay what it had previously agreed to pay — her speech, which was supposed to provide the opportunity for a breakthrough moment in the tortuous Brexit negotiations, shows how little progress has been made since March.
If her position on the Irish border remains contradictory (she wants to leave the EU customs union, but have no physical infrastructure on the border) her position on the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK post-Brexit is inadequate..
She proposed that after the end of any agreed transition period, these rights — currently ensured by the European Court of Justice — be written into British law. This is only progress compared with the UK’s previous dreams of being able to alter them by administrative order at a later date.
Her promises that British courts would protect EU citizens’ rights will ring hollow after EU citizens were sent deportation letters “in error” and a week after the Home Office stands accused of ignoring injunctions against the deportation of an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. The EU will continue to insist on the direct application of EU law in this area, which is something that “leave” supporters will find hard to stomach.
But it is on the rather abstract question of what the EU calls “the integrity of the single market” that her proposals were so ill-conceived as to appear designed to sabotage, rather than advance the negotiations.
The EU’s main institutional advantage is its internal market, which is based on the principle that all members have the same benefits and obligations, and those benefits are not available to countries not willing to abide by the obligations.
After claiming she understood the impossibility of having her cake, May then proceeded to propose eating it. To seek an economic arrangement being as much like the single market and customs union as possible — but without the common rules governing them — will appear to the EU and its members at best as self-contradictory, and at worst as cynical cherry-picking.
An unkind observer — and there are a lot of unkind observers of Britain across the EU at the moment — would conclude that the British want everything about the EU, except European people. This is not a constructive basis for negotiations, but it is also the most conciliatory position May can get past her own party. Faced with a choice of an economic cliff, or a leadership challenge, she is taking the country toward the cliff.