LONDON – “Brexit means Brexit.”
So said Theresa May over and over and over this summer as she vaulted herself out of the hurricane-strength political wreckage of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and into the nation’s top job.
But two months after May took the keys to 10 Downing Street as her predecessor sped away without glancing back, Britain is none the wiser as to what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means.
Instead of a unified position ahead of what are sure to be lengthy, contentious and ultra-high-stakes divorce talks with its 27 erstwhile partners in the European Union, the British government has instead treated the public to a near-daily display of mixed signals and evasive maneuvering.
Will Britain seek a clean break with the European Union, forswearing membership in the world’s largest common market so that it can also slam the door shut on European immigrants? Will it seek an exit-in-name-only, formally leaving the bloc but carving out enough opt-ins that the departure is felt only gently? Or will it seek a bespoke deal that blazes a new path, while tempting others in Europe to do the same?
In recent weeks, there have been nearly as many answers to those questions as there are ministers in May’s cabinet.
The government’s three leading Brexit advocates – the “Brexiteers” – have suggested they want a speedy and complete departure from the clutches of the bureaucracy in Brussels, in line with the will of the 52 percent of Brits who voted for an exit in the country’s June 23 referendum.
Boris Johnson, the country’s bombastic foreign secretary, has even gone so far as to record a video supporting an advocacy group that seeks to press May – Johnson’s boss – to fully liberate Britain from its Brussels shackles.
Meanwhile, David Davis, the country’s newly minted minister for Brexit, has said a continued presence in the bloc is “improbable” if Europe insists, as it has, that membership comes with the free movement of workers.
But May, who reluctantly backed the “remain” side in the June vote, has found ways to remind her countrymen that leaving will not be easy and that there is a clear downside to departure.
On Sunday, a close May ally and fellow “remain” supporter, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, told the BBC that Brits hoping to vacation on the golden sands of the French coast or in the refined air of the Italian Alps could be forced to apply for a visa and pay a fee once the country is out of the European Union. For years, travel to the continent has been as simple as hopping on a Eurostar train or booking a flight on a budget airline. But new barriers, Rudd said, could be the price Britain pays if it wants a clean break.
“I don’t think it’s particularly desirable,” Rudd said, “but we don’t rule it out.”
May herself has sworn off any direct indications of what Britain wants from Europe, saying that to give “a running commentary” on the country’s negotiating strategy would put it at a disadvantage.
Asked at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday how the government would safeguard its financial-services industry – which has much to lose from continental rivals if it’s not protected in the talks – May delivered what has become her standard non-answer when pressed about any of the details of Brexit.
“This government will be working to ensure the right deal for the United Kingdom,” she said, prompting groans and jeers from Parliament’s green benches.
It’s unclear how long she will be able to get away with such vague responses to questions that cut to the core of what could ultimately be Britain’s biggest transformation in decades.
May is under pressure from her European counterparts to quickly trigger Article 50, the never-before-used mechanism for a country to leave the European Union.
But May has stalled, saying it will not happen until at least the start of the new year. Once Article 50 has been invoked, Britain will have two years to negotiate the terms of its departure. Many experts regard that as an unrealistically rapid timeline for such a complex untangling and say it is one that could put Britain at a disadvantage because it has more to lose than Europe does if no deal materializes in time.
With her government divided over what to ask for, May is thought to be seeking clues from her fellow European leaders about what Britain can realistically expect to get. The strategy, according to Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman, is to “turn the Article 50 process on its head: first get a sense of the final framework, and only then trigger official notification and proceed with exit negotiations.”
But European leaders have resisted this dessert-before-vegetables approach, with several top continental officials telling Britain that there will be no pre-negotiations before the main event. That, Rahman wrote in a recent briefing note, will make May’s task over the coming months “very difficult to achieve.”
If there is a silver lining for Britain in its thus-far-incoherent approach to Brexit, it’s that Europe itself has been divided over how to approach the talks. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker insisted Wednesday that Britain will not be allowed “a la carte” access to the bloc without accepting the free movement of people across national borders, which is a core EU principle.
But others have advocated taking a softer line: using Brexit as an opportunity to address concerns about the European Union that extend far beyond British shores. Limiting mass migration and cutting down on Brussels bureaucracy, for instance, are goals shared by countries outside Britain.
“Brexit was not just a British issue,” said Stephen Booth, co-director of the London-based pro-business think tank Open Europe. “There are a lot of people in Europe who are unhappy with the status quo.”
But Booth said that anyone expecting a quick answer to the question of what Britain will look like outside the bloc is bound to be disappointed.
Two of the simplest solutions – either a clean break from the bloc or a Norway-style deal that allows Britain to maintain access but end its membership – will not work for Britain, he said.
The former, he said, will impose World Trade Organization-level tariffs on Britain’s trade with Europe, forcing businesses to reckon with “costs that they’re not sure they can cope with.” The latter does nothing to address voter concerns over immigration, a key driver of Brexit.
“We’re not looking at the Norway option. It’s going to be something else,” Booth said. “But what that is exactly is very much up for grabs.”
What’s left, Booth said, is a “shades-of-gray” deal that gives Britain more market access in some areas than in others, along with some sort of limit on immigration. But that will take years of painstaking negotiation, followed by a long period in which Britain seeks to find its way in its new outside-the-EU world.
“The U.K. has to reshape its future,” Booth said. “It’s not as though everything will be completed on the day we leave the EU.”
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