The latest European Council summit of presidents and prime ministers finished last week with the United Kingdom little closer to a Brexit breakthrough. While all sides now expect significant progress to come before the next European Council meeting, in December, the fact is that the negotiations are badly behind schedule in what is already a very tight timetable to exit in March 2019.
As this latest meeting showed, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts at taking big steps forward continue to be hamstrung by lack of any clear, coherent, or credible strategy from the United Kingdom government for exiting the European Union (EU). If strategy is a balanced combination of ends, ways and means then the UK under May’s leadership has from the start been unclear about what end it wants from Brexit. Ministers have been unsure of whether they have or can put in place the ways and means to get there and, to compound the problem, struggled to understand how the EU is thinking and behaving. This has left Britain badly divided and heading towards a potentially hard, disorderly Brexit that would see no trade deal agreed between the parties. This could see an unprecedented breakdown in relations with its close neighbours, trading partners and allies.
Yet, May now has a limited window of opportunity this autumn to turn things around with a relatively new French President, Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel having won a new term in last month’s elections. With the stakes in play so high, there are at least four fundamental issues that May needs to tackle to break the impasse in Brexit talks in October and November.
Firstly, she needs to show more honesty about what Britain can and cannot achieve in the two-year timeframe of the Article 50 process. Hoping that Brexit could be completely settled between March 2017 and 2019 was always unrealistic. That is why a transition period is so important afterwards.
There is also need to give more clarity on how much the UK may pay as exit contributions to the EU as part of a transition deal that gives all sides more time to handle Brexit. Given that this is a litmus test for many Brexiteers, May must also be prepared to face down critics back home, especially right-wing Tory members of parliament.
Secondly, May needs to dismiss any lingering hopes held by some Brexiteers about bringing about a reordering of European geopolitics. The prospect of the UK’s exit spreading to other EU countries drove the rest of the continent into a defensive mode. To many key allies like Germany and France, for instance, Brexit is an act of vandalism to Europe. The fear of EU disintegration may have receded, in part because Britain has shown no clear strategy for its EU exit. However, it’s also eased because the mood music around the EU has become more optimistic with the failure of far-right populists to win power in France and the Netherlands, plus the stronger performance of the European economies.
Third, May needs to better recognise that the EU is changing and that Britain’s place in Europe will be shaped by this dynamic, not just its own plans for Brexit. The UK’s exit is only one of several challenges and opportunities confronting Brussels that includes ongoing pressures facing the Eurozone, Schengen zone, Russian relations and the future of Nato and ties with the United States.
These are first-order issues, and the EU needs to recognise it has some glaring weaknesses to remedy, too. Strategies for saving the euro single currency, for instance, have been nothing more than glorified exercises in muddling through.
How the EU responds in coming years to these issues will help determine its political economy, place in the world, and help frame its future relationship with the UK. A longer Brexit transition period will allow Britain and the EU time to better align and forge a new, successful relationship based on mutual self-interest.
Fourth, May should not lose sight of domestic politics beyond Brexit. The EU referendum, and its aftermath have consumed UK politics for two years, but for most people their lives are defined by other concerns. Allowing for a longer transition would give time to focus on real drivers of positive change in UK society such as education, infrastructure, and productivity and help deliver the most prosperous post-EU future for all UK citizens.
If May delivers on this agenda, she will create the political capital and diplomatic space for a smoother pathway in Brexit talks, increasing prospects of a good final deal. And Brussels and the EU-27 will be obliged to engage themselves much more constructively in Brexit negotiations.
To seize the opportunity, May must show statesmanship, putting country above party. This will not be easy given her post-election political weakness. Losing her majority in the June election, called in the hope of strengthening her political position, was one of the most disastrous ever UK electoral decisions. The subsequent public infighting in the government shows that it has still not reconciled many key negotiating ‘trade-offs’ by apparently wanting close, favourable post-Brexit ties without the costs. This underlines also how ministers have failed to educate the public about the challenges and potential opportunities on the Brexit horizon.
The UK remains a nation of immense power and potential. But that can only be fulfilled if governed by leaders with a clear strategy for what it is they want to achieve and an ability to direct towards it.
Taken overall, October and November may be May’s last best chance to get Brexit talks moving. The challenges are real, but if she can surmount them, the prize could be a clearer course for positive future relations with European allies. Will she seize the opportunity or let it slip?
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.