The first Brexit discussions took place this week with the European Union quickly handing Britain its backside. If the opening capitulation on the sequencing of talks is an indication, it’s going to be a brutal negotiation for Team GB.
The poor showing isn’t much of a surprise, given Britain is now the sick man of Europe. How quickly things have changed; two years ago it was Europe on its knees.
Despite leaving this era-defining mess in his wake, former British Prime Minister David Cameron should be forgiven for putting his country’s membership in the Europe Union to a vote a year ago.
With Cameron’s (unexpected) June 2015 majority weighed down by the promise of a referendum, it was a question of when, not if, the vote would be called. And while no politician looks to sell into a down market, Cameron reckoned Europe’s 2016 would be as bad, or worse, than its torrid 2015. A quick vote was the Europhile prime minister’s best chance.
A million migrants had spilled into the continent that summer and hundreds of thousands more were expected to follow. Islamists were profiting from Europe’s undefended internal borders to launch strikes, culminating in the savage siege of Paris’ Bataclan theatre. Noisy populists on the left and right were using these and other political failures to hammer the established order. The continent was reeling.
Cameron’s mistake was to think his continental colleagues would be in a mood to give him what he wanted in a negotiation. They weren’t. Europe couldn’t afford the luxury of dealing with Britain’s ‘problems.’ Cameron’s loss and subsequent resignation left Theresa May to pick up his pieces.
For a while the comparison with Europe continued to trade in Britain’s favour. The U.K. economy remained resilient. The continent continued to struggle with migrants, terror and tepid economies. With each attack or factory closure the shouts for a Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, or Beppe Grillo grew louder.
The populists have, by and large, been seen off. In France, neophyte Emmanuel Macron led his untested centrist movement into power, and in Germany Angela Merkel is once again a safe bet for reelection. The spine of Europe is newly stiffened.
Meanwhile, Theresa May squandered the Cameron majority in her own poorly executed gamble. To add insult to May’s ignominy, the British economy is now the worst performing in the G7. Would the referendum vote return a different result today, now that Europe is in rude(r) health? Possibly.
The reversal of Europe and Britain’s fortunes is a timely reminder that everything in politics is a certainty, until it isn’t. It’s also proof that answers to sharp problems can be found in the centre, as opposed to the margins of political discourse. Above all, it’s a symbol of how quickly things can change when the population is fed up with the status quo.
And Britain, circa June 2017, suddenly has the look and feel of a frustrated place.
The horrific fire in London’s Grenfell Tower provided a gruesome précis of the challenges facing the country. Austerity, while necessary to restore trust in public finances, has produced victims, people who have frequently been ignored by the political class. If their angry reaction to the fire is any indication, they won’t be silent much longer.
It’s not a great time for Britain’s political class to be distracted — as they now are — by more proximate partisan concerns. With no stable governing coalition at the ready both the Conservatives and Labour are preparing for a return to the polls.
It is in this fragile environment the government of the day must play its weak Brexit hand. No pressure; it is only the most important negotiation in the country’s history. A poor result could be the shock that triggers a political realignment.
The Macron example must surely be tempting for those Tory and Labour moderates put off by the extreme wings of their parties, i.e. the ultras who painted the country into its unenviable corner. Would moderates put country ahead of party if the government comes back with no deal, or a poor deal? And would anyone in Europe be ready to listen to them?
It’s tempting to say it could never happen. Then again, lots of people were saying the same thing in 2015, when the present Europe looked an impossibility.