Ever since Theresa May stated that “Brexit means Brexit” during her first speech as Prime Minister, she has left her cabinet, her European counterparts, decision-makers in the world of business and finance, and, not to forget, her electorate wondering what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means. Up until now, it is – though ingeniously crafted – an empty formula that has left ample room for interpretation for Brexiteers as well as Bremainers. But, with the first major, though officially “informal” EU-meeting without the UK approaching, Theresa May now needs to fill the phrase with life and with meaning. And that’s where it’s getting pretty complicated. With both hard and soft Brexiteers in her cabinet, as well as Bremainers, May needs to find out quickly what the British position towards Brexit is.
A first step towards that will be taken on Wednesday, when May gathers her cabinet at Chequers. There, at the Prime Minister’s country retreat, senior ministers will reportedly have to come up with a so-called action plan to “make Brexit work”. As the Guardian explained on Sunday, each cabinet minister has to identify opportunities in their field of competence that could arise from the UK’s departure from the EU.
For that, May and her ministers first need to define what Brexit means. Does it mean continued access to the European Single Market? If so, for all sectors or just for some (e.g. only Financial Services)? Does Brexit mean continued unlimited freedom of labour movement? Or does it mean restrictions to this very freedom? What kind of model does the UK pursue in its negotiations with Brussels – the Norway model, a Swiss-type agreement or a Canadian free-trade solution? Or, would it prefer the “Continental Partnership” , a model that was first discussed on Tuesday after a group of policymakers and scholars published a paper calling for a new, looser organisation between the UK and the EU?
With advocates for both a soft and a hard Brexit in her cabinet, this will be a tough call for Theresa May. She will no doubt struggle to find an agreeable solution for the likes of Brexit minister David Davis or trade minister Liam Fox as well as for Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. According to the Sunday Times, there is a split between different members of the cabinet, precisely over whether the UK should strive for continued access to the Single Market or not and, if so, whether it would accept continued unlimited European migration or not.
From a European perspective, there won’t be one without the other. Like many of his European counterparts before, Germany’s vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel underlined this again during the weekend when he stated that the UK would have to “pay” for Brexit. “If we organise Brexit in the wrong way, then we’ll be in deep trouble, so now we need to make sure that we don’t allow Britain to keep the nice things, so to speak, related to Europe while taking no responsibility,” Gabriel said.
Not only the members of the British cabinet but also the members of the civil service seem to be split about what Brexit really means. The Brexit-side in particular gives the impression of fearing opposition from within the civil service. According to the Guardian, Steve Baker MP, who campaigned for Brexit, has suggested that officials should be “summarily fired” if they tried to block the Brexit process.
Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond cabinet and the civil service. MP’s are still shocked by May’s announcement to not consult the House of Commons before triggering Article 50. Should MP’s, most of whom were against Brexit before the referendum on June 23rd, not be questioned, given that the decision to trigger Article 50 will most likely be the gravest decision that the UK government is going to take for decades?
To many MPs as well as outside observers like me, that sounds odd, given that the vote for Brexit was presumably all about democracy and “taking back control”. In my home country Germany, it would be unheard of for our chancellor to go ahead without parliamentary consent (although, I admit, parliament was not questioned before Merkel allowed more than a million refugees in last year).
Then there is the Labour party, with its ongoing leadership contest. Corbyn’s challenger Will Owen has promised a second referendum, should he be elected Labour leader and should his party gain a majority in parliament. Both events are highly unlikely. In addition, the first endeavour is, as the FT’s Wolfgang Muenchau put it – also a waste of time and energy. According to him, the Remain-side should focus on securing a Brexit that is as soft as possible, not accidentally end up with one that is as hard as possible.
“Those who campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU are shaping up to be two-time losers. They lost the referendum vote on June 23; now they are losing the battle to keep the UK inside the single market. Both defeats are based on repeated misjudgements”, Muenchau stated. “After the referendum, they should have conceded defeat, and moved on to argue the case for the closest possible relationship between the UK and the EU. That would at least have kept open the possibility of a return to the EU in the future. Instead, they are calling for a second referendum.”
This, Muenchau argues, leaves the definition of what “Brexit means Brexit” really means mostly to the hard Brexit camp, to the disadvantage of Remainers and soft Brexiteers. There is some truth to this and I will be watching the Chequers meeting quite closely. However, “Bremain vs. Brexit” as a blog will end today, as I will move to a new post with the Wall Street Journal. I hope you enjoyed reading.