As ‘Brexit’ Clock Ticks, U.K. Seems Adrift

The chaos is being met with consternation elsewhere in the European Union, where negotiators say they are beginning to wonder if the British will ever decide on a coherent strategy.

“You hear more and more voices saying, ‘It is ridiculous what the Brits are doing,’ ” said Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, director of the Europe program at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a research institute based in Germany.

“Over the last 12 months, we have heard everything and the opposite: hard Brexit, soft Brexit, quick Brexit, long Brexit,” he said. “When you follow what is coming out of Theresa May’s cabinet, it is not clear what vision Britain is opting for.”

To make matters worse, infighting over negotiating strategy and policies has become entangled with a leadership struggle: At least three senior cabinet members are thought to be jockeying to replace Mrs. May, whose position was severely — perhaps fatally — weakened when she lost a parliamentary majority in last month’s election.

The prime minister is pleading for an end to the ferocious “backbiting and carping” in the Conservative Party, and she lectured her cabinet this week on the importance of keeping internal discussions confidential.

Her pleas came after reports that the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, had said at a recent cabinet meeting that public sector workers — who are subject to a cap on pay increases of 1 percent, when inflation is more than 2.5 percent — were overpaid compared with their counterparts in the private sector.

Mr. Hammond, who has led the “soft Brexit” faction that favors prioritizing the economy over considerations like immigration, then publicly blamed those seeking a quick, clean, break from the European Union for the leaks.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, David Davis, the British secretary of state for exiting the European Union, was photographed with colleagues in Brussels on Monday sitting at the negotiating table without any documents or notes, while their European Union counterparts had sheaves of position papers before them.

Things went only marginally better on Thursday, when the European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, emerged from a meeting in Brussels with Mr. Davis to lament that he still had no idea of Britain’s positions on the most basic issues, like how much the country will owe the bloc in its so-called divorce bill.

Officially, Britain is still pursuing the vision of a clean break with the European Union that Mrs. May outlined in January, one that prioritizes immigration and the supremacy of British courts — even over the interests of the economy.

Unfortunately for Mrs. May, voters hinted last month that they did not support that approach. With a shortage of nurses and doctors in the National Health Service, among other labor shortfalls, there is a growing realization that Britain is dependent on foreign workers.

As a result, the prime minister’s plan for the withdrawal may not have the support of a majority of her cabinet, let alone of Parliament — a challenge she must contend with while fighting to keep her job and as potential successors circle.


Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain recently lectured her cabinet on the need to keep internal discussions confidential.

Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Logic suggests that, given the divisive nature of the withdrawal from the European Union and the Conservatives’ recent electoral showing, the party should shift to a softer approach in negotiations, perhaps enlisting the support of lawmakers from the opposition Labour Party. But the leadership struggle is taking precedence.

“The national interest and parliamentary arithmetic would dictate some kind of grand coalition on Brexit,” Mr. Bale said. “But the logic of the internal politics of the Conservative Party points the prime minister, and aspirant leaders, away from the obvious solution.”

The contenders to succeed Mrs. May — Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as well as Mr. Hammond and Mr. Davis — will ultimately be chosen by members of the Conservative Party, who tend to be emphatically supportive of leaving the bloc, and who will not tolerate backsliding into a diluted withdrawal.

So, as Mr. Hammond leads the push for a softer, less economically risky strategy, supporters of a harder exit are pushing back.

Britain is a big and diverse country that imports many goods from the Continent, which means there are incentives on both sides to strike a deal — and Mr. Fritz-Vannahme and others say they believe a sensible outcome can be brokered.

As the clock ticks, though, British businesses are growing nervous. So far this year, investment in the auto sector has been about $840 million, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, an industry group. If that trend continues, the annual total will be well below the $3.2 billion invested in 2015, the last full year before the vote on European Union membership. Carmakers worry that leaving the European customs union would mean the imposition of tariffs and the disruption of complex international supply chains, both of which would raise their production costs.

At the same time, many banks are planning to relocate members of staff, in the expectation that firms based in London will lose the right to offer services across the European Union once Britain leaves the single market. And airlines will be affected unless a deal is reached to protect their right to fly to and from continental Europe. The budget airline easyJet has already announced plans to set up a new carrier, with headquarters in Austria, to allow it to continue operating flights across the bloc after Britain’s withdrawal.

Trying to steady the ship, Justice Secretary David Lidington dismissed reports of political infighting as little more than the product of summer garden parties: “too much sun, and too much warm prosecco.”

Few are buying that, however, and many analysts say they expect the feuding to continue until Mrs. May is pushed aside and a successor is named. But solving the leadership crisis may take time, which Britain can ill afford as far as the withdrawal process is concerned. And as Mrs. May herself has signaled, forcing her out could lead to a new general election that could be won by Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. So the jockeying, backbiting and carping might continue for some time.

Either way, the feuding reflects more than internecine battles among the Conservative grandees. It also reflects a growing, if belated, realization that there are few good options for Britain.

A so-called cliff-edge withdrawal that cuts many ties with the European Union without establishing new trade arrangements could lead to a sharp recession and an unpopular jolt to voters who had been promised a sunny future in a prosperous trading nation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is what is being called the Norway option, in which Britain would leave the European Union but try to remain a part of its economic structures. That would put the country in a worse position than it is in today, forcing it to pay money to the bloc, and to accept European rules without having a say in making them.

Mr. Hammond is trying to thread the needle, softening the possible economic hit a little by allowing for businesses to have a transition period to adapt to new rules.

A looming question is whether Britain should seek to replicate elements of its membership of the European Union’s customs union, which eliminates tariffs on industrial goods. That could reassure big industries like the auto and pharmaceuticals sectors, and it might ease the border problem in Northern Ireland, which would have a frontier with the European Union because the Republic of Ireland, its neighbor, is a member of the bloc.

But it would most likely prevent Britain from striking trade deals with non-European nations, as supporters of leaving the union had promised.

As the negotiations progress, and the trade-offs and costs of leaving the European Union become clearer, the choices are likely to become even harder.

“Britons are not very honest with themselves,” Mr. Fritz-Vannahme said. “The harder, sharper the Brexit, the harder the economic situation will be.”

Perhaps it was in recognition of such troubles that Mr. Hammond offered a recent toast.

“In victory, you deserve Champagne,” he told a gathering at the French Embassy in London, in a slight variation on the words of Winston Churchill. “In defeat, you need it.”

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