No-deal Brexit ‘more likely’ as May suc­ces­sor un­der pres­sure to de­liver

As EU rifts claim fourth UK leader, new PM faces an uphill bat­tle, write Michael Birn­baum and Griff Witte

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Business -

ON one side of the English Channel, sup­port­ers see it as the great­est peace project the world has ever known. But seen from that scep­tred isle scarcely 20 miles out at sea, the Euro­pean Union looks more like a po­lit­i­cal as­sas­sin, one with a par­tic­u­larly ra­pa­cious ap­petite for British prime min­is­ters. The EU claimed its fourth vic­tim in the past three decades last Fri­day, as a choked-up Theresa May ac­knowl­edged that her at­tempt to get Bri­tain out of the bloc with her ca­reer in­tact had failed.

Three of her pre­de­ces­sors have also been evicted from Down­ing Street while try­ing to crack the code of Europe.

Now May’s suc­ces­sor will at­tempt to avoid the same fate. And an­a­lysts say that to do so, he or she may have lit­tle choice but to steer Bri­tain to­ward what was once seen as a re­mote pos­si­bil­ity but is in­creas­ingly viewed as a live prospect: a chaotic de­par­ture from the EU with no agreement on what comes next.

“A no-deal Brexit has be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more likely,” said Steven Field­ing, pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham. “Who­ever fol­lows May will be faced with an ex­is­ten­tial threat. They’ll think, ‘If I don’t de­liver Brexit, I’m fin­ished’.”

If Bri­tain does jump into the post-EU world with­out a net, the im­pact would shake Bri­tain’s econ­omy — with rip­ples, and per­haps waves, far beyond its shores. May had sought to avoid that out­come, press­ing the coun­try’s frac­tious Par­lia­ment to pass the com­pro­mise she struck with her con­ti­nen­tal peers. But that deal was voted down three times, and May re­signed rather than face the in­dig­nity of a fourth de­feat.

With EU lead­ers in­sist­ing there will be no new ne­go­ti­a­tion, it is not clear how May’s suc­ces­sor can fol­low through on Brexit other than to de­part with­out a deal on Hal­loween, the next in a se­ries of dead­lines since Bri­tain’s vote to exit nearly three years ago.

Boris John­son, the for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary and front-run­ner to suc­ceed May, high­lighted

the pos­si­bil­ity last Fri­day, telling an eco­nom­ics con­fer­ence in Switzer­land that his coun­try would “leave the EU on Oc­to­ber 31, deal or no deal.”

Of course, that could be a bluff. John­son ac­knowl­edged as much, adding that “the way to get a good deal is to pre­pare for a no-deal”.

It’s pos­si­ble, some an­a­lysts be­lieve, that John­son — or who­ever takes power in Lon­don — could be con­fronted with the same painful Brexit ed­u­ca­tion May has un­der­gone. That, they say, could lead to yet more un­cer­tainty and re­quests for ex­ten­sions.

But across Europe on Fri­day, May’s res­ig­na­tion brought a recog­ni­tion that a no-deal sce­nario may be the only way out.

“A hard Brexit seems like a re­al­ity that is al­most im­pos­si­ble to avoid,” said a spokes­woman for the Span­ish govern­ment, Is­abel Ce­laa. “There are some in Lon­don who think they can ne­go­ti­ate an­other deal,” said Rosa Bal­four, se­nior fel­low at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund. “That’s not go­ing to hap­pen. They’ve al­ready got the best deal they’re go­ing to get. The red lines will not change.”

May found that out the hard way, re­peat­edly press­ing her Euro­pean coun­ter­parts to give her more so she could sell Par­lia­ment on the deal and end the im­passe that has left Bri­tain stuck in the nether-re­gion be­tween EU mem­ber­ship and life on the out­side.

Her down­fall fol­lows that of David Cameron, John Ma­jor and Mar­garet Thatcher, all of whom found them­selves un­able to unite the coun­try — and, per­haps most crit­i­cal, their party — be­hind a com­mon po­si­tion on Europe. “The Con­ser­va­tive Party has been al­most fa­tally di­vided on this is­sue since the 1980s,” Field­ing said. “Suc­ces­sive party lead­ers have strug­gled to man­age the di­vi­sions, and all of them have failed. The Con­ser­va­tive Party’s prob­lem has now be­come the British prob­lem.”

Who­ever wins the job will face the most daunt­ing chal­lenge yet in hold­ing the party to­gether. An ex­pected drub­bing in Euro­pean Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions at the hands of the Nigel Farage-led Brexit Party, which did not ex­ist sev­eral months ago, will un­der­line just how close the Con­ser­va­tives are to crack­ing up, Field­ing said.

And it will likely em­bolden those on the right of the party who are push­ing for an exit at any cost.

Lit­tle will be clear be­fore late Oc­to­ber, Eu­ro­peans ex­pect, since they don’t think British law­mak­ers will make any dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions with­out a dead­line to sharpen their minds.

Euro­pean pol­i­cy­mak­ers love to loathe the list of ar­dent Brex­i­teers now aim­ing to suc­ceed May at 10 Down­ing Street. They re­serve par­tic­u­lar dis­dain for John­son, whom they re­mem­ber from his days whip­ping up hos­til­ity to­ward the EU as a Brus­sels-based cor­re­spon­dent for the Daily Tele­graph. John­son and his fel­low Brex­i­teers have spent three years ad­vo­cat­ing ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tions that are un­re­al­is­tic given Euro­pean de­mands and pres­sures, Brus­sels diplo­mats say.

There are some Euro­pean lead­ers — no­tably French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron — who long to pull the rip­cord at the end of Oc­to­ber and cast Bri­tain away so that they can move on with their own plans.

But, for now, Euro­pean diplo­mats ex­pect that an ex­ten­sion in Oc­to­ber would be granted, fol­low­ing the same logic as an emer­gency meet­ing of EU lead­ers last month. It’s prob­a­bly worse for the Euro­pean Union to have Bri­tain de­part in an un­con­trolled fash­ion than to ex­tend the un­cer­tainty, they say.

Euro­pean lead­ers have of­fered no ad­di­tional con­ces­sions to Bri­tain, de­spite May’s strug­gle to pass the di­vorce deal, be­cause they see the agreement less as a ne­go­ti­a­tion than as the only an­swer to a math prob­lem.

Add up Bri­tain’s red lines and what re­sults is the cur­rent di­vorce deal, as un­pop­u­lar as it is, pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Brus­sels say. The only way to change the deal is to take away some of the red lines, such as a de­sire not to have a cus­toms bar­rier be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the rest of Great Bri­tain. That won’t change with May’s suc­ces­sor. Even a no-deal Brexit wouldn’t end the drama. The con­ver­sa­tion the next day be­tween Lon­don and Brus­sels would be the same. They still need to find a so­lu­tion to keep open the bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land and Ire­land to avoid spark­ing a new con­flict. They have to agree on a way for British ci­ti­zens to con­tinue to live and work in the EU, and vice-versa. And the EU will still want Bri­tain to live up to its fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments in the EU bud­get it agreed to be­fore it de­cided to de­part the bloc.

“Ci­ti­zens, peace on the is­land of Ire­land and money,” one se­nior Euro­pean diplo­mat warned last month, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions. If there is a no-deal de­par­ture, the diplo­mat said, “ev­ery term in the with­drawal agreement will still be dis­cussed with the UK”.

UK Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May re­turns to No 10 Down­ing Street af­ter de­liv­er­ing her emo­tional res­ig­na­tion speech on Fri­day morn­ing

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