No-deal Brexit looks like­lier as May steps down

Her re­place­ment could see crash­ing out of E.U. as only means to de­liver


ber­lin — On one side of the English Chan­nel, sup­port­ers see it as the great­est peace project the world has ever known.

But seen from that sceptered isle drift­ing 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 E.U. claimed its fourth vic­tim in the past three decades on Fri­day, as a choked-up Theresa May an­nounced that, hav­ing failed to get Bri­tain out of the bloc, she would re­sign as leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party on June 7 and make way for a new Con­ser­va­tive prime minister this sum­mer. Three of her pre­de­ces­sors have also been evicted from Down­ing Street while try­ing to crack the code of Europe.

Now, a grow­ing list of Con­ser­va­tive politi­cians are jock­ey­ing to re­place her. Each has promised to end the im­passe that has left Bri­tain stuck in the nether re­gion be­tween E.U. mem­ber­ship and life on the out­side. But if May’s suc­ces­sor is to avoid the same fate, an­a­lysts say, 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 E.U. with no agree­ment on what comes next.

“A no-deal Brexit has be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more likely,” said Steven Field­ing, a 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-E.U. world with­out a net, the im­pact would shake Bri­tain’s economy — with rip­ples, and per­haps waves, far be­yond its shores.

And yet sev­eral of May’s wouldbe suc­ces­sors have al­ready ar­gued

fa­vor of that op­tion, rea­son­ing that Bri­tain’s jour­ney to free­dom from the shack­les of the E.U. be­gins with a de­par­ture on its own terms, rather than a com­pro­mise.

Boris John­son, the former for­eign sec­re­tary and front-run­ner to suc­ceed May, high­lighted the pos­si­bil­ity on Fri­day, telling an eco­nom­ics con­fer­ence in Switzer­land that his coun­try would “leave the E.U. on 31 Oc­to­ber, deal or no deal.” (Hal­loween is the next in a se­ries of dead­lines since Bri­tain’s vote to exit nearly three years ago.)

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.”

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 E.U. as a Brus­sels­based 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 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. She re­peat­edly pressed her Euro­pean coun­ter­parts to give her more be­yond the com­pro­mise with­drawal deal she struck with them, so she could sell Par­lia­ment on the deal.

But she failed to get fur­ther mean­ing­ful con­ces­sions from Europe. And her frac­tious Par­lia­ment re­jected the deal three times. May re­signed rather than face the in­dig­nity of a fourth de­feat.

With E.U. lead­ers in­sist­ing there will be no new ne­go­ti­a­tion, it is not clear how May’s suc­ces­sor can fol­low through on Brexit other than by de­part­ing with no deal or fun­da­men­tally chang­ing Bri­tain’s ne­go­ti­at­ing stance.

May’s 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,” Fieldin ing 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.”

Con­ser­va­tives will choose a new leader — and a new prime minister — over the next two months. 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 prob­a­bly em­bolden those on the right of the party who are push­ing for an exit at any cost.

A Prime Minister John­son also might have very dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties than the woman he would re­place.

“May’s over­rid­ing goal,” Bal­four said, “was to save the Tory Party.”

John­son, by con­trast, may not care about bridg­ing di­vides that have grown into a deep chasm. Like Pres­i­dent Trump in the United States, he sees him­self as an icon­o­clas­tic politi­cian who can dom­i­nate by sat­is­fy­ing a base, rather than ap­peas­ing dis­parate fac­tions.

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

It’s pos­si­ble, some an­a­lysts be­lieve, that 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 ex­ten sions.

There are some Euro­pean lead­ers — no­tably French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron — who long to pull the rip­cord and cast Bri­tain away so 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 E.U. lead­ers last month. It prob­a­bly would be worse for the E.U. to have Bri­tain de­part in an un­con­trolled fash­ion than to ex­tend the un­cer­tainty, they say.

Gone by the way­side, for now, are Euro­pean dreams of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum in Bri­tain that could re­verse Brexit al­to­gether. May’s will­ing­ness to con­sider the idea helped spark the fi­nal re­bel­lion that ousted her from of­fice. Al­though most Euro­pean lead­ers would be happy to put the brakes on Brexit if they had the chance to avoid it, they don’t ex­pect to do so.

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 E.U., and vice versa. And the E.U. will still want Bri­tain to live up to its fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments in the E.U. 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 U.K.” Birnbaum re­ported from Brus­sels.

“They’ve al­ready got the best deal they’re go­ing to get. The red lines will not change.”

Rosa Bal­four, se­nior fel­low at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund


Bri­tish Prime Minister Theresa May ex­its 10 Down­ing Street in Lon­don to de­liver a speech Fri­day. The em­bat­tled leader, who has re­peat­edly tried and failed to se­cure a deal on Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union, an­nounced she would re­sign June 7.


Michael Gove Bri­tain’s en­vi­ron­ment, food and ru­ral af­fairs sec­re­tary Do­minic Raab former Brexit sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt Bri­tain’s for­eign sec­re­tary Sa­jid Javid Bri­tain’s home sec­re­tary An­gela Lead­som former leader of the House of Com­mons Boris John­son former for­eign sec­re­tary

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