Jan 31, 2019 Jean Pisani-Ferry
PARIS – After 31 months of the United Kingdom and the European Union arguing over Brexit, the truth is that neither side knows what it wants.
This sad reality is most obvious in the case of the UK, whose ruling Conservative Party has consistently been at war with itself over the actual meaning of the June 2016 Brexit referendum. After a series of strategic mishaps and tactical blunders by Prime Minister Theresa May, the Tory infighting came to a head in mid-January, when Parliament voted down her negotiated exit agreement. It made clear that May lacks support within her own party for a realistic compromise with the EU.
At the same time, a majority of MPs and British voters oppose the “no-deal” exit advocated by hardline Tory Euroskeptics. That scenario would put the UK in breach of legally binding international commitments, jeopardize the 1998 agreement that ended violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, and result in immediate economic costs and job losses. At a time when US President Donald Trump is hastening the demise of the post-war global order, it is frankly stunning that Brexiteers still believe in the fantasy of a thriving, free-trading Global Britain. And yet here we are.
The EU finds itself in a rather different situation. Since the referendum, the 27 other member states have displayed impeccable unity; their chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made skillful use of his mandate. The EU has steadfastly rejected Britain’s demand for an unbundling of the single market, as well as any scenario that could result in new customs checks on Irish soil. Throughout the negotiations, the contrast between the UK’s amateurish muddling and the EU’s show of clarity and consistency could not have been sharper.
Still, the EU has demonstrated a remarkable lack of strategic perspective, focusing wholly on rules and processes instead of results. True, its steadfast rejection of à la carte solutions reflects the fear that a favorable deal for the UK will whet the appetites of other Euroskeptic member-state governments. But that does not excuse the failure to develop a strategy for structuring the future UK-EU relationship.