The Cable

You Think Your Week Sucks? Try Being Theresa May

She’s facing the EU’s guidelines for Brexit, and a request for a second Scottish independence referendum. How’s your Friday?


On Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May got wind of a pair of texts that will make her already fraught life a bit more difficult.

The European Council issued a draft of its guidelines for the divorce proceedings, after May officially kicked off Brexit on Wednesday. They are chilly.

“The Union’s overall objective in these negotiations will be to preserve its interests, those of its Member States, its citizens and its businesses,” the text reads. It continues that, because Brexit creates uncertainty not only for Britons but also for all EU citizens, “we must proceed according to a phased approach giving priority to an orderly withdrawal” — that is, the terms of the divorce must be finalized before discussing future UK-EU relations. A new trade agreement, for example, cannot be negotiated until after the withdrawal.

Speaking to journalists in Malta, European Council President Donald Tusk underscored that the United Kingdom is now on the other side of the negotiating table. He pledged “Once, and only once we have achieved sufficient progress on the withdrawal, can we discuss the framework for our future relationship.” He added that he hopes to have this first phase concluded by the fall of 2017.

The draft text, set to be approved by the other 27 EU members in Brussels on Apr. 29, also says “the Union will act as one” in the negotiations.

A Union acting as one must have a wistful sound to May right now. On Friday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote to May to ask for permission to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. May has already said she would block this request until Brexit was finalized. Sturgeon, wants Scots to have a chance to hold the referendum before Brexit, so that they can possibly remain in the EU and not leave in a huff and then be forced to bang forlornly on the door and plead readmittance to a Union they never wanted to leave in the first place. Sturgeon, apparently missing the entire lesson of Brexit, said there is “no rational reason” for May to block the referendum.

That both texts landed before May on the same day is likely little more than coincidence — as Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out to Foreign Policy, both have been in the works for a while. But it doesn’t make her life any easier.

“The more likely it is for Brexit to have real economic consequences for the U.K., the stronger the case for Scottish independence is,” he said, adding, “Vice versa, the greater the support for independence, the weaker is the hand Theresa May is playing in Brussels.”

That isn’t to say Scotland would automatically be allowed into the EU if the referendum passed. Rohac said that many member states (Hola, Spain!) are wary of setting a dangerous precedent for their own secessionist movements. But Europe as a whole is also leery of the notion of an optional European Union where countries can opt out and rewrite the terms of membership at leisure.

And it isn’t to say that a second independence referendum would necessarily pass. In 2014, just over half of Scots worried leaving the Union would lead to economic turmoil. The economic case for leaving the United Kingdom isn’t much stronger now (especially after oil prices cratered, turning the North Sea into as much a liability as an asset.)

Arguably, the economic case not to leave the U.K. is greater now, as a U.K. out of the EU, and a Scotland inside the EU would be a major economic hurdle for millions of Scots,” Joseph Dobbs of the European Leadership Network, told FP.

But, there’s another huge difference, too, one that will haunt May both in Brussels and in dealings with Holyrood. “Unlike the last time her colleagues called a referendum,” Dobbs said, “this time the Unionist case doesn’t look clear either.”

What May is learning is that it can be hard to save one Union while you are in talks to walk away from another.

Photo credit: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin

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