Some 874 days after the Brexit referendum, Theresa May has reached a deal with the European Union to prevent a hard exit from the bloc. But events of recent days make clear that months of drama in Brussels pales in comparison to the one unfolding in London now.
The morning before the United Kingdom began its political endgame, Steve Baker ordered a “full English breakfast.” The conservative EU-skeptic was in a fantastic mood this Tuesday, when he entered one of those upscale eateries a stone’s throw from parliament where the powers that be in London like to meet.
Baker doesn’t yet know that that evening, Prime Minister Theresa May will announce the completion of the Brexit negotiations with Brussels. Nor is he familiar with the details of the almost 600-page long draft agreement. But he says on Tuesday morning with a smile, he was already sure there would be a “big rebellion.”
Baker, 47, is an aircraft engineer, parachutist and member of parliament for the Conservative Party. Above all, however, he is a central figure in the grand chess game that is Brexit. The man from Cornwall is a leading figure of a group of passionately EU-skeptic Conservative parliamentarians. Their number is estimated to hover around 50 — plenty to block any agreement between London and Brussels. Certain of victory, Baker says: “Why on earth should we accept that the EU has an indefinite right to tell us how we should govern ourselves?”
Baker and his Brexiteers aren’t the only ones rapidly assembling their troops in the UK these days. Protest has arisen on all sides since Theresa May finally, 874 days after the referendum, announced an agreement with Brussels that would make her country’s withdrawal from the EU almost imperceptible.
Those who believe the deal goes too far and those who believe it doesn’t go far enough are suddenly united in opposition to a prime minister who is growing increasingly isolated. On Wednesday, she managed to wring a half-hearted approval out of her cabinet, but then her Brexit minister resigned 12 hours later. He wouldn’t be the only one.
It’s still not even clear whether May’s Brexit plans can withstand the scrutiny of the 27 remaining EU member states. They plan on convening to discuss the deal at the end of November. Nevertheless, the stage is set for a showdown the likes of which British politics has never seen before. It is impossible to predict who will remain standing once it is over. As nerve-wracking as the negotiations with Brussels might have been, the real drama is only now getting started.
More than once in the past weeks, negotiators have found themselves staring into the abyss. Four weeks ago, they met until shortly before 2 a.m., until they hit a wall. Over the course of several hours, British negotiator Oliver Robbins spent more time on the phone with London than he did speaking with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. Ultimately, it became clear that May didn’t dare take the proposal to her cabinet.
The weekend, however, didn’t end up being a total waste. It was during those talks that the idea began to crystallize of the United Kingdom — following a two-year transition period in which almost nothing of the status quo would change — remaining for a time embedded in the customs union with the EU. That temporary membership would endure until a free-trade agreement between the EU and its former member is signed.
The plan, for which May continued to fight internally, has the decisive advantage of preventing, for the time being, a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and thus a potential resurgence of the violence in the volatile region. But there are many signs that the Brits will have to tolerate a customs union with the EU for much longer.
In the key points that have been made public from the political declaration that is to accompany the exit agreement, the free-trade agreement and the customs partnership are specified as the starting points for a discussion about the future relationship. London would not have the right to unilaterally withdraw.
For the Brexit hardliners on the island, that would represent nothing short of “capitulation,” as Brexit hardliner Bill Cash puts it. Unlike what the EU skeptics had promised their constituents, the UK wouldn’t regain full control over its laws, borders or money for quite some time. Nor would Britain be able to establish any free-trade agreements with other countries for years. In truth, the deal destroys the last remaining illusions that a fast, clean divorce from the EU is possible.
Brussels Has Largely Prevailed
Nevertheless, nobody in Brussels was of a mind to talk about winners and losers. Too great was the fear of weakening May in her upcoming fight for survival. When it comes to the content of the deal, though, it is clear that Brussels has largely prevailed.
The result is 585 pages, including three additional protocols and a string of annexes — long enough to hide the unpleasant realities. The provisions about the controversial special treatment of Northern Ireland in case the free-trade agreement is delayed are buried deep in the agreement, legally binding but not very visible.
The Brits are paying a high price, and not just because of the final bill of up to 50 billion euros. Throughout the process, the 27 remaining EU countries haven’t allowed themselves to be split, remaining united on more than just the Ireland question. They made sure that Britain must continue to abide by European environmental and social standards, as well as EU state subsidy rules, if the country wants to remain part of a customs union and continue doing business on a reasonable basis with the continent. If the Brits were planning on establishing competitors to companies on the continent, that’s out of the question for now.
The seemingly less important question of who can fish in which waters has thus far not been satisfactorily answered. Countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and France in particular are pushing for more clarity and the subject could also lead to unpleasantness for the EU.
‘Difficult Days Ahead’
But that is nothing compared to the storm brewing on the island, one that might sweep away May. The prime minister herself predicted on Wednesday evening, looking wan in front of the cameras after a five-hour struggle with her cabinet, “I know there will be difficult days ahead.”
It is a long road to the EU special summit, which, according to European Council President Donald Tusk, can only take place on Nov. 25 “if nothing extraordinary happens.” Nothing, for example, like a head of government being ousted.
And even if May should make it that far, the parliament will await her at home. The lower chamber has fought for the right to vote on the final deal with the EU. At some point in December, the time for that vote will likely have arrived. To make it through, she needs not only the vote of every single Tory MP, but also the votes of the Northern Irish DUP, with whom she is in a coalition of sorts.
The ultra-nationalists, however, are not even considering agreeing to any kind of solution that binds Northern Ireland closer to the EU and thus gives the region a special status within the UK. They know they have conservative hardliners on their side, like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who — without knowing anything about the draft agreement — already said that continuing on as a “vassal state” was not something he would agree to.
The Scottish nationalists have also announced their opposition in parliament, albeit for a very different reason: They want their state, the majority of which voted to remain in the EU, to have the same special rights in the future as Northern Ireland. Perhaps the most troubling for May, however, is the fact that even those in her party who are not militantly anti-EU are turning away from her. They don’t understand the logic of an agreement in which the UK would largely still be bound by the EU’s rules without having any say in Brussels.
On Wednesday, Dominic Grieve, a leading voice of the pro-EU Tories, withdrew his confidence in the government: “I could not look my constituents in the eye and say this would be a better deal than the one we have as a member of the EU and so I will vote against it.”
Is disastrous defeat still avoidable? May’s best, if not only, chance is to point to the alternatives if the deal falls through. If that happens, the country would be pushed out of the EU boat without a lifejacket, with unpredictable economic and social consequences. Or there could be another referendum, in which the Brits, tired of the constant chaos, simply backtrack on Brexit.
For this reason, May, with the support of prominent corporate leaders, will try to appease her people and its representatives. The strategists at 10 Downing Street have already planned a charm offensive. The head of government will make it clear, without saying it exactly, that a half-Brexit is better than none.
And then, shortly before Christmas, it will be time for the parliamentary vote. It will decide whether Theresa May will go down in British history as one of its most flawed or most successful leaders. And for the time being, at least, she still has a job.