Brexit fog in Channel!


(Houses of Parliament – London, 2011)

(Traduction anglaise de l’article En avant pour le “flou” Brexit)

« Brexit means Brexit »: this phrase, repeated mantra-like by Theresa May, has for a long time been indicative of the British Government’s lack of position. On the fundamental question of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, the Prime Minister has offered nothing more than this tautological definition.

Indeed, analysis of the Brexit vote shows a sharp divide between those who endure globalisation and those who benefit from it, between those who would like more regulation and those who want less. Two opposing visions at opposite ends of the voting spectrum. This is certainly not the first time the two camps have collided, but it usually results in the status quo. Now, instead, a choice must be made between two visions of Brexit.

To this initial dichotomy should be added a second, namely, what links should there be with Europe? A hard or soft Brexit? A clean break or an integrating agreement? Again, the Brexit camp has never committed itself one way or another, reluctant to lose part of its electoral base.

So, British Prime Minister Theresa May quite rightly decided to dispel doubts by unveiling part of her plan on 17 January. What came out of this so long speech? Very little in fact. Far from the announcement of a ‘clear-cut’ Brexit, the Brexit favoured by the English remains vague.

Admittedly, Theresa May did speak of exit from the single market but then backtracked twice. She would like, firstly, the widest possible agreement with the Union as a replacement and, secondly, to stay in a faux ‘customs union’ as far as possible.

Beyond the basic principle of a ‘hard Brexit’, she also referred in her speech to numerous future partnerships with the Union, for the economy, of course, but also for defence and intelligence. What is the point of leaving the Union if only to come back and work with it on the majority of policies? There’s a certain symbolism, sure, but it comes at a high price.

Furthermore, the tone of the speech was particularly interesting, as it marked a departure from the hostile and even contemptuous attitude of extreme Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. May has consistently been conciliatory and appeasing towards the EU. Again, behind the posturing of some individuals, the stakes are clear: the UK needs the EU more than the EU needs the UK.

In advocating an improvement in workers’ rights, it is worth noting that May stressed how British social policy was mainly a European achievement and that this would mean retaining the legacy of the EU in this area (see in french L’Europe sociale : une réalité ?) Along with increased protection, she also appealed for a ‘Global Great Britain’, one linked to the rest of the world by trade agreements. A surprising vision, as if the country were still in the 19th century, when it was the world’s biggest trading nation.

Meanwhile, May undertook to consult the British Parliament and the various political parties of the UK. She will have to avoid an institutional crisis with the former and a political crisis with the latter. The Scottish issue, in particular, could flare up at any point during the lengthy negotiations.

In the end, Theresa May may have fallen short of dissipating the fog surrounding Brexit but that was probably not her aim in any case. Her priority was to buy herself some respite from the mounting pressure from Brexiteers, pressure that a possible preliminary question to the Court of Justice by the Supreme Court in the next few days would only increase.

In this respect, her bet will have paid off, as certain statements, such as the exit from the single market, will suffice to satisfy the Brexiteers. Yet today’s speech is certainly a long way from the final outcome of the negotiations. This new kind of partnership between the Union and the UK could ultimately prove to be a pyrrhic victory for the British.

(Translated by Catherine Johnson)

In the language of Shakespeare, we could find another article: Brexit: a good thing for Europe?,  Trump: a chance for Europe? and 2017: twilight of democracy?

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