Theresa May’s Government Is Steering Britain Toward an Iceberg

The Conservative Party's negotiating strategy is premised on telling the EU one thing and British voters another. Doublespeak won't deliver a deal; it will lead to economic and political disaster.

British Prime Minister Theresa May looks back as she and other leaders depart at a summit of leaders of the European Union on September 20, 2018 in Salzburg, Austria.
British Prime Minister Theresa May looks back as she and other leaders depart at a summit of leaders of the European Union on September 20, 2018 in Salzburg, Austria. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

After the European Union’s forceful rejection of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiating position in Salzburg, Austria, on Sept. 20, Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s new foreign secretary, warned not to mistake “British politeness for weakness.”

Addressing the governing Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham on Sunday, he made sure his remarks couldn’t be construed as polite.

Recounting a visit to Latvia, Hunt recalled how “30 years ago, that country was under Soviet occupation,” before making a jarring comparison. “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving. The lesson from history is clear: If you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish. It will grow.”

Hunt was supposed to have been a normal foreign secretary, replacing Boris Johnson’s jibes at an EU made up of German prison camp guards with more conventional diplomatic language. Hunt’s remarks drew icy condemnation from the pro-European Conservative Party member Nicky Morgan. “I understand there’s playing to the gallery,” she said, “but he needs to remember he’s also foreign secretary.”

In a normal government, remarks such as Hunt’s, directed at Britain’s largest trading partner and closest geostrategic ally, would have cut his time as foreign secretary short. His latest slander of Europe may have had a similar purpose—but Hunt intends to move up, not down.

And this, in a nutshell, is the single greatest cause of the failure of Britain’s Brexit negotiations. The talks are being conducted not in the common interest of both sides, nor in Britain’s national interest, nor, even, to pander to British public opinion—but to appease a minuscule section of it (the Tory Party’s membership would fit in a large football stadium) that pays dues to be a member of the party.

Since the 2017 election, May’s days in office have been numbered, and like Queen Elizabeth I, she has groomed no obvious successor. Every major Conservative Party event has thus become an interminable audition for the next leader; this week’s party conference is merely the latest casting call. Under party rules, the members get to pick between two candidates put forward by the party’s members of Parliament.

This explains Hunt’s latest foray into nationalist hyperbole, accusing the EU of “breaking up the United Kingdom.” Here, he was repeating his boss’s assertion that the EU was trying to “carve up” the country.

The dispute centers, as so often in British politics, on the Irish border. May agreed in December 2017, and again in March, that her government would negotiate a Brexit that avoided the need to create a border with physical infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It would do so by accepting that Northern Ireland would be in “regulatory alignment” (i.e., operating under the same regime of economic regulations) with Dublin—and therefore the EU.

The trouble came about because there are, in principle, only three ways of doing this:

First, by choosing a “soft Brexit” and having the United Kingdom as a whole align with the EU so that Britain would end up in a relationship with the EU similar to Norway’s—in the EU’s economic zone but outside its political institutions.

Second, by imposing checks and inspections of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain to ensure that EU-aligned rules applied in Northern Ireland—and thus prevent smuggling to and from the British mainland.

Third, a technological solution that would avoid options one or two, as proposed by magical thinkers such as ex-foreign secretary and prime ministerial hopeful Boris Johnson.

The third, however, is impossible (the technology to track shipments accurately doesn’t exist), and the first two have been ruled out by British politics. Brexiteers consider a soft Brexit to be a trick that would turn Britain into a vassal state of the EU. In their view, whereas the Tory slogan was once, “In Europe but not run by Europe,” now it would be, “Out of Europe but run by Europe.”

And checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea have been blocked by the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes any differentiation whatsoever between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom—and upon whose parliamentary support May’s government depends. Earlier this week, the DUP’s leaders threatened to bring down May’s government if she agrees to border checks in the Irish Sea. But that could put Jeremy Corbyn—a longtime supporter of the Irish Republican Army—in power, which suggests they’re bluffing. Nevertheless, such opposition to a workable Irish border deal has now been elevated to a constitutional principle.

“No British prime minister would ever agree to [that],” May told Parliament. The trouble was, she already had—twice, last December and the following March. If this appears to the EU to be negotiating in bad faith, it is built upon a clear pattern. Britain’s hope from the beginning of the Brexit negotiations was that there would be some EU member states (such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden) willing to give it what it wanted: the free movement of goods, services, and capital between the EU and Britain but without the free movement of people. This was never on offer from the official EU negotiating team, so May decided to go over its head and appeal directly to individual member states—not such a great idea when people remember your traditional imperial slogan was “divide and rule.”

Then there was the question of sequencing. The EU was determined to settle the rights of citizens, money it believed the British government owed, and the question of the Irish border before it moved on to discussing a future relationship. May’s government wanted to discuss them all at once, hoping to trade one off against the other and in particular to be able to put pressure on Ireland. Remarkably, centuries of imperial rule and rebellion have failed to teach the British government that bullying Ireland is not a good look.

Second, in trying to get the big EU states to overrule Irish concerns on a matter of the country’s vital national interest, Britain would have set a precedent: Small countries can be rolled to please a nonmember of the EU. It thus alienated not just Ireland but every EU member state apart from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain. The European Commission, which usually sets itself up as the defender of the EU’s smaller members, spotted this role and filled it assiduously.

Finally, there was the possibility, openly discussed by members of May’s cabinet, that any agreement would be only provisional. Environment Secretary Michael Gove—a man who once described Brexit as the beginning of the “liberation of a whole continent” during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign—argued that Britain could enter the European Economic Area (where Norway is now) to give itself time to negotiate something better. Gove’s message, like Hunt’s, was intended for the exclusive consumption of Tory members: Trust me, when I speak to the EU, my word is mud.

Unfortunately for Gove, Hunt, and all the other Conservative members of Parliament with hopes of succeeding May (and who among them, at this stage, doesn’t keep a tiny flame of ambition alight?), Tory members must be addressed in English—a tongue that everyone in Europe’s foreign ministries can read, rather than, say, Welsh, which they would have difficulty translating. As Hunt himself said on Sunday, English is “the world’s language.”

The Tories vying to succeed May have no choice but to conduct their nationalist auction in stage whispers that the EU is able to hear. This is unhelpful to a negotiating strategy that relies on telling the EU one thing and your own people the opposite.

Some in Britain’s government still hope Germany will come to their rescue. But what could be more calculated to infuriate a German chancellor who grew up under Soviet occupation than to bring up, as Hunt did, the far-right trope of the “EUSSR”?

If Britain does crash out without a deal, British ministers will have only themselves to blame for putting their personal futures ahead of averting an economic catastrophe and the election of a far-left government to follow it.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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