Over the past two weeks, and particularly since British Prime Minister Theresa May embarked on her annual walking holiday in the south of France and northern Italy, the most significant word to make headlines in London has been “transition” — as in a transition deal for the United Kingdom after the March 29, 2019 deadline for sealing a divorce deal with the rest of the European Union (EU).
It’s almost as if elements in May’s cabinet believe that somehow the Brits can have their cake and eat it too. Those who are floating the transition deal are hoping that Britain can remain in a half-in, half-out state of suspended animation in the Brussels bloc, enjoying the best of membership of the club while also ignoring the responsibilities and duties that come with more than four decades in the EU.
That’s not going to happen. There will be no transition deal. You’re either in or out — and the majority of Brits voted Leave. And those who are floating the idea of a transition deal must be smoking something that’s not yet regulated by the EU. If you’ve ever been through a divorce, it’s pretty simple: Separation comes first while the divorce terms are finalised and then it’s goodbye, adieu, ciao, auf weidersehen or any other way of putting it in any of the 24 official languages used by the 28-member bloc.
Don’t forget for one minute it was May herself who set the clock ticking on these Brexit negotiations, and it was she who decided that the formal two-year period for talks by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would have begun last March 29. And as the good lady so often reminded Brits and every European leader as well, “Brexit means Brexit”. That’s not a Brexit light, or a watered-down associate membership, but a full and complete end of 45 years in the EU come March 29, 2019. And it is she who has also repeated time and time and again that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. With May away and hiking through Europe, her cabinet ministers are laying bare the divisions that are so evident in her newly-elected government.
On a walking holiday in Wales in April, May decided to call June’s general election, partially in the belief that she would win a bigger majority and a stronger hand in the Brexit negotiations. To all intents and purposes, she had also decided to fire her chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, a wishy-washy Remainer who she undercut when he presented his February budget and reversed his national insurance measures on the self-employed.
But June’s chastening at the polls and her weakened position as a leader of a minority government, propped up by members of Ulster’s Flat Earth Society in the form of the Democratic Unionist Party, left her with no choice, but to retain Hammond as finance minister, if only to create the illusion of a strong and stable government. It’s not.
May, as the UK’s second female prime minister, looks often to the first, the late Margaret Thatcher, for inspiration. She should take some from an anecdote that spoke volumes of Thatcher’s control of her cabinet.
Thatcher took her 30 cabinet members out to dinner, and the waiter took her order. “I’ll have the steak, medium rare,” she said.
“And the vegetables?” inquired the waiter.
“They’ll have the same,” she replied.
Any talk of a transition deal isn’t on. For starters, the Leave element in cabinet and in her party, want out of the EU — and the sooner the better. It took years of infighting in the Conservative party to get to the point where the Eurosceptics have won out, literally, and the result of the Brexit referendum needs to be honoured — and the sooner the better.
A transition deal will only revive the moribund United Kingdom Independence Party and that would have profound effects on a Conservative party that could face an election as soon as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) realise that the political Earth in Westminster is indeed round. The Conservatives can’t give any ground once more to Ukip. A transition deal ignores the reality that the vast majority of the EU27 want rid of Britain and its anti-EU influence on the bloc — and the sooner the better. Simply put, the Brits want out, and they started the mess, are responsible for it, and let them go. There may be some sympathy in Poland for May, but there’s little patience now in Brussels anyway for the right-wing authoritarian government in Warsaw. After all, the EU would love to suspend the voting rights of Poland at the EU level, and that would remove any sympathetic ear for the Brits.
A transition deal ignores the very basis now of the EU’s negotiation position. All EU27 and the European Commission, the cabinet-like administration that runs Brussels’ day-to-day business, have agreed that three key principles have to be ironed out with Britain — and the sooner the better. These are the size of the financial obligations due by Britain to the EU for leaving the bloc; the rights of the three million EU citizens who now reside in the UK and the rights of the 1.5 million Britons who live in the EU; and ensuring that the land border between the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south remains open for the free movement of goods, services and people.
Indeed, all of this talk in recent days of a transition deal and the Brits not knowing what they wanted drew the ire of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a man whose nation has a lot to lose because of Brexit when it comes to the prospect of a border being re-imposed. “There hasn’t been an economic border since 1992,” he was quoted as saying in the Irish Times. “As far as this government is concerned, there shouldn’t be an economic border,” he said. “We don’t want one. It’s the United Kingdom, it’s Britain that has decided to leave and if they want to put forward smart solutions, technological solutions, for borders and all of that, it’s up to them. “We’re not going to be doing that work for them because we don’t think there should be an economic border at all,” Varadkar said. “That is our position.”
Yep, and the position of the rest of the EU leadership — and the sooner all the Brits realise that the better.